Developing Strategic Thinkers

Strategic thinking is regarded as an essential core competency for leadership positions. In fact, many organizations already use this competency, among others, to appraise and evaluate the performance of their executives and leaders. Thus, a competency gap in strategic thinking is considered serious, and organizations will attempt to eliminate this gap. This brief article explores the most effective means to develop strategic thinkers.

Let us begin by listing some of the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that are attributed to this competency.

Strategic thinkers:

  • Are systems-oriented, that is they think holistically and use the helicopter view.
  • Embrace creativity, innovation, intuition, and understand the insight process (Eureka and aha!)
  • Think futuristically and embrace visionary thinking
  • Act like organizational radars (or antennae) scanning the internal and external environments
  • Have a worldly mindset
  • Act as explorers, with heighted curiosity and alertness
  • Have the ability to keep an open mind to new ideas, and adapt to changing environments
  • Have the desire and guts to outwit, beat, and out-run competition
  • Are knowledgeable of their industry and experts in their areas of specialization
  • Know their finance and risk management
  • Have a bit of entrepreneurial spirit
  • Are good communicators (good at asking probing questions and listening)
  • Know how to inspire and lead teams.

Clearly, the type, weight, and relevance of these competency components vary greatly across industries and organizations. For example, General Electric (GE) has selected five advocates dubai competencies (which GE calls growth traits) to identify areas for development among their top people. The five GE growth traits are:

  • Imagination (viewed as an advocate of innovation; has courage to take risks on both people and ideas).
  • External focus (understands customer needs, marketplace dynamics, industry trends and the competitive landscape).
  • Clear thinking (specifies strategy into actions; makes decisions and communicates priorities).
  • Inclusiveness (connects with teams; inspires people to want to perform at a higher level; promotes an environment that recognizes and celebrates individual and cultural differences).
  • Domain expertise (gains perspective through varied experiences and build-up of skills; strives to increase knowledge with up-to-date information).

This is how Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, described the process in an interview with Harvard Business Review (2006): “We came up with a tool that we’ll use as part of Session C, our annual HR review. It’s a matrix that lists the five growth traits and their components. You are rated as green, yellow, or red on each one. Everybody has to have one red because the point is not to pick out winners or losers – it’s to say everybody’s got to work on something. That will guide the development plans for the top 5,000 people in the company this year.”

Now, the important questions are these: How can organizations, as good “gardeners”, cultivate the art and skills of strategic thinking in their future leaders? Is it possible to develop these competencies and, if so, how? What specific management development and training activities should be undertaken by high-potential men and women in order to become better strategic thinkers?

Unfortunately, early literature on this subject is limited. It is typically focused on management development initiatives and the learning aspects of thinking strategically without giving adequate consideration to having in place supportive organizational culture, systems, and structures (Bonn 2001, 2005). In her research on this subject, Bonn argues that strategic thinking needs to be addressed at different, but interrelated, levels: at the individual and group levels and at the organizational level. Organizations that successfully integrate strategic thinking at all three levels will create a critical core competency that forms the basis of an enduring competitive advantage. This integration at all levels, I believe, is absolutely necessary if leaders are expected to practice or cultivate their strategic thinking competencies. Otherwise, all the time, money and effort put into management developmental initiatives will simply be wasted.

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