A few months after I was promoted to director of human resources, my vice president called me into her office to discuss my new role. She noticed I was still doing some work from my previous position as a human resources generalist, and said that I needed to learn to delegate those things to my team members. Even though my responsibilities had changed, I was still answering benefit questions and fixing payroll issues when employees called me. This was keeping me from focusing on more strategic work like developing training programs for our managers. I was struggling to let go of the technical HR work I was good at, and my old task-oriented work was getting in the way of performing what was necessary in my new position. Employees were used to coming to me with payroll and benefit issues, and since I wanted to be helpful, I would take care of their issues instead of directing them to the HR assistant. While I was being of value to those individual employees, I was not contributing the best value I could for the credit union.
If you’ve ever had a manager tell you that you need to be more strategic, and struggled to understand what that meant, you are not alone. In my experience as a leadership consultant and coach, this is one of the biggest challenges that keeps managers and executives from being successful in a leadership role. The more senior the leadership position, the more strategic thinking and focus is required for success. Strategic work is typically not as activity based as the tasks we are used to in more technical positions. In a leadership role, “being strategic” could include coaching and developing employees, influencing others toward results, planning, developing ideas and strategies, communicating goals to your employees, and researching industry trends, to name a few. In my position as HR director, being strategic meant analyzing our employee talent, assessing the skills and competencies managers needed to be successful, and developing training programs to elevate the leadership skills of our managers and executives. This was an ongoing, long-term focus, and often felt harder to accomplish than my previous position which focused on daily technical tasks.
While strategic thinking is a skill that can be developed, many leaders still struggle to do it successfully. That’s because being strategic is a practice, not just way of thinking. To be more strategic, leaders need to develop practices and structures that support higher level thinking and execution.
Below are six ways to be more strategic:
- Identify your annual goals. While the executive team often creates the strategic goals for the credit union, many departmental directors and managers don’t take the time to develop their own strategic goals for their functional area that support the credit union strategic goals. A one-page document that creates clarity on what your department should be focusing on for the year can be a highly effective structure for directing your team meetings and daily employee tasks.
- Think long-term. Many professionals thrive on completing activities and handling organizational emergencies, and they fill up their days with tasks that don’t contribute much to overall results. In fact, my love of checking things off my list often got in my way as a new HR director since my new responsibilities were often longer-term goals rather than daily activities. To develop your long-term thinking skills, make a list of the outcomes and results you need for a particular project. Here are some questions to prompt long-term thinking:
- If this project were to be successful, what would the result look like?
- What are the success criteria for this project (what specifically needs to be accomplished for this project to be successful)?
- If I were to break this project into three phases, what would they be?
- What are the steps that go into each phase?
- Who needs to be involved? What resources do I need to make this project successful?
- What is our timeline for each phase of this project?
- What blocks of time do I need to schedule in my calendar (and in my employees’ calendars) to work on this project?
- What team meetings do I need to schedule upfront to ensure this project stays on task?
These are not the only questions that can help leaders be more strategic, but they can prompt more long-term thinking. An important skill leaders need to be successful is the ability to “Zoom Out” to see the bigger picture of what you and your team need to accomplish (long-term projects, strategic initiatives) and then “Zoom In” to focus on the part of the project that needs to be done in the short term. Many leaders struggle because they are too focused on the short-term tasks and issues right in front of them.
- Schedule retreat days. Some managers and executives have developed the ability to think strategically, but they struggle with follow-through. Being strategic is not just a thinking skill, it’s a practice. To get results, leaders need to create structures to support strategic implementation. For example, in my own business, I can become so focused on facilitating workshops and working with clients, that other long-term projects I would like to accomplish in my business get put off, like creating new programs or writing a leadership book (my current project!). I have to be deliberate in scheduling time to focus on strategic projects. Several years ago, I started scheduling three to four retreats a year where I get away from the day-to-day work for two or three days and focus on strategic projects. This time away from my daily work is extremely beneficial because it allows me to focus and make progress on important strategic projects outside my daily work. I recommend leaders set aside at least one day a month to focus completely on a strategic project or area. For example, perhaps you want to research industry trends so you can make a recommendation on how to approach an issue your credit union is facing. Unless you are purposeful and make time for this type of research, it may never get done.
- Block time. This strategy almost seems too simple to be so powerful, yet it is one of the most effective practices for improving focus and productivity. As leaders, one of our important responsibilities is to develop our team. This requires strategically thinking through the unique development needs of each employee and coaching them toward their best performance. Scheduling time in your calendar at the beginning of the year for important meetings that support your strategic focus, like coaching sessions, planning sessions, and teambuilding activities will ensure they are a priority.
- Team strategy meetings. While it’s important for you as a leader to find time to focus, you also need to make sure your team is focused on the important goals. Scheduling monthly strategy meetings can ensure you and your employees are making progress on your important goals. A strategy meeting is different than a regular team meeting that typically focuses on projects and sharing information. Strategy meetings are completely focused on future thinking and aligned with your long-term goals. These meetings are not the time for status updates; the time is best used discussing industry trends and recommendations, overcoming obstacles, and ensuring the team is aligned around high-level goals.
- Delegate. In order to be more strategic, you need to have the time to focus on higher level ideas and projects. As a leader, one of the most important elements of success is the ability to delegate. Our jobs as leaders is to facilitate, not fix. Many of us were taught that managers should fix problems and issues. However, the best managers and executives understand that facilitating others to take ownership and get results not only frees up our time, but develops our team. As you go through your week, keep a list of tasks you are currently doing that can be accomplished by someone on your team. Start delegating these items to your employees so you deliver the maximum value you bring to your organization—your leadership talent, and your ability to be strategic.
Smart, successful leaders know that it’s not enough to think strategically. You must be purposeful in developing practices that support you in delivering your strategic best every day.