After college I took a road trip to the western United States with two roommates, Digger and Jorgy. While we had a great adventure I also learned a fascinating lesson about the challenge of strategic leadership.
As we were driving Digger kept exclaiming, “do you see that bird!” And Jorgy would say, “no, where?” Then Jorgy would shout out, “look at that formation” and Digger would say, “what formation, where?” Digger, the ornithologist, was always scanning the sky or treetops, while Jorgy, the geologist, was always scanning the ground. They did not easily see what the other saw.
Author and leadership consultant Bruna Martinuzzi suggests that a strategic leader has to be able to “keep an eye on the ground and on the horizon at the same time.” In an article she wrote last year she provides advice on how to develop that tricky skill of looking up and down at the same time, or developing “the ability to oversee the day-to-day operations while directing the long-term strategic imperatives.”
- Practice Using Reframing. Reframing is the ability to view an issue or topic from a completely different and new perspective. A physician I worked with at my previous employer shared my favorite example of reframing. Whenever she worked with a patient who kept failing when trying to quit smoking she would reframe it by focusing on the patient’s willingness to keep trying, not on the failure. Then they could reinforce the patient’s tenacity and agree to work on trying something new. Marinuzzi describes how leaders can use a Reframing Matrix to view an issue from four different perspectives before you make a decision.
- Adopt Practical and Conceptual Approaches. Honestly acknowledge if you typically use a more concrete or a more abstract approach and then force yourself to carve out time in your schedule to practice the opposite. If you tend to be more practical, take time to research industry trends and analyze trends over time. If you are more comfortable in the conceptual realm, take time to review the project plans of your people or examine the day-to-day processes your people use to get their work done.
- Strike a Balance Between Informing and Inspiring. Examine all your different types of communication and assess how often they focus on creating clarity and sharing of information versus inspiring and motivating people. Strategic leaders must do both.
As a strategic leader you can help your team keep their eyes on the ground and the horizon.
We know strategic leadership is important, but how do we recognize when it’s happening? What efforts should we focus on to develop strategic leaders within our organizations?
The Strategy + Business magazine has identified 10 principles of strategic leadership. They also created a one-page infographic summary of the highlights.
The article defines strategic leaders as people who are able to tackle “wicked problems” – the ones that “can’t be solved by a single command, have causes that seem incomprehensible and solutions that seem uncertain, and often require companies to transform the way they do business.”
Higher education, like most other sectors, is facing any number of wicked problems. We’re going to have to continue to step up our leadership game. Here are 10 principles that can help.
- Distribute responsibility
- Be honest and open about information
- Create multiple paths for raising and testing ideas
- Make it safe to fail
- Provide access to other strategists
- Develop opportunities for experience-based learning
- Hire for transformation
- Bring your whole self to work
- Find time to reflect
- Recognize leadership development as an ongoing practice
There are several items on this list that resonate with me – either because it’s something I’m involved with frequently or because it’s something I need to work on. Where could you focus as you address the wicked problems in your life?
Dee Anne Bonebright
My grandfather was a master painter and wallpaper hanger and I had the amazing fortune to work for him for over 20 years. One of the many lessons I learned from him was that you have to deliver the basics to get the opportunity to become a true master at your craft. The first years that I worked for him I spent much of my time painting the insides of closets or the priming coat of paint. Strategic leadership also has a foundation in delivering the basics before moving to the strategic.
Rosabeth Moss Canter, in a November Harvard Business Review article, highlights that successful strategic leaders are those that have mastered execution and implementation by following these four imperatives.
Question everything. Force yourself to challenge your assumptions and tackle “sacred cows” that exist in your organization or industry.
Inform everyone, then empower champions. Focus on both breadth of awareness and ideas and depth of committed support. Share information broadly and ask for all ideas to ensure that you are considering all options. Then take action to support your early and enthusiastic adopters to demonstrate early results.
Keep relationships tight and rules loose. Build a large network of people who are comfortable sharing good and bad news with you. Focus on creating a shared vision and trust and then giving people the freedom to take action and make decisions based on their expertise.
Modify quickly. Recognize and be willing to acknowledge bad news or challenges. Learn from what isn’t working and modify as soon as possible.
Developing a strategy and announcing it isn’t enough, you have to dive in and get the closet painted.
Strategic plans, work plans, goals, action items, tactics, timelines… these are all fantastic tools for strategic leaders. They are important, and even necessary, to help leverage people’s work efforts and accomplish organizational mission. But we all know that our best laid plans can be disrupted by problems and opportunities during the year.
In those cases, what is a strategic leader to do? Abandon all hope of strategic planning and just go with the flow? Dump your plan and stay in reactive mode? I think not!
One strategy my team used to plan for unexpected problems or opportunities was a priority-setting brainstorm session. We identified criteria that should be used in prioritizing the activities we already have in our work plan as well as any new work that might emerge during the year. Some of the questions we explored included:
- How should we set priorities?
- What criteria do strategies or activities need to meet in order to be included in our work plan?
- What goals and guiding principles should we be consistently supporting as a unit?
- Does new work need to meet ALL priority-setting criteria or just some?
It was a fruitful discussion that helped us anchor our work plan and work priorities in overarching goals for our division and the system. We discussed the impact of our work, our customer’s needs, and the environment in which we work. We also had a useful conversation about how we want to work together as a team, and we agreed upon our own set of operating principles.
Since that conversation, I’ve noticed some of my team members have been more mindful of high-level priorities and have increased confidence in setting boundaries with other colleagues. In fact, just today I was copied on an email one of my team members sent to a colleague, explaining that a particular project would need to sit on the back burner until her higher priority work was completed. Now that’s leading and working strategically.
“Most companies have articulated their purpose–the reason they exist. But very few have made that purpose a reality for their organizations.” — L. Chevreux, J. Lopez, and X. Mesnard
The quote above is from a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. The authors made some excellent points that apply to higher education as much as the business world. They described many examples where organizations got caught up in strategy, lost sight of their purpose, and eventually failed.
Strategies are time-bound and target-specific results. In contrast, the article said that purpose is “what makes an organization durably relevant to the world.” Climate assessment surveys, online curriculum development, and even transfer pathways are important strategies for Minnesota State. But they are not, in themselves, the reason that anyone will care whether we exist twenty years from now.
Our interim chancellor, Devinder Malhotra, has clearly defined three three areas of strategic focus: Student success, diversity and inclusion, and financial sustainability. As we work toward these goals, the article gave three tips for ensuring that we can keep focused on purpose:
Create personal connections to purpose: We need to understand how providing educational resources can make people’s lives better. Effective leaders in higher education believe in what we provide, not just at a surface level but as a deeply held value.
Don’t compromise on purpose: As leaders, we are often pulled between conflicting extremes. Another recent HBR post identified some of these strategic tensions. Do we need strong leadership, or broad empowerment? Do we need to develop capacity or generate quick results? As we examine these tensions, we need to focus on getting the best from both sides.
Walk the talk. As leaders, we set the tone for our organizations. We need to model the importance of purpose and show how to use effective strategies to get there.
Dee Anne Bonebright
The dreaded pop quiz. I can still remember how I felt when hearing those words when I was in school. If I had done my homework, I didn’t flinch. But if I wasn’t prepared, my heart would start pounding!
Yes, I have a strategic leader pop quiz for you today, but first let’s study what will be on the test.
Research conducted by the Wharton School of Business and the consulting firm Decision Strategies International, Inc. (DSI) on over 20,000 leaders identified six “essential skills” that can be assessed and developed to become an adaptive strategic leader.
Anticipate – the ability to recognize subtle or ambiguous threats and opportunities before they affect your team or organization. Strategic leaders take action to “scan the horizon” by:
- continually talking and listening to all stakeholders
- gathering market research and utilizing scenario planning
- interacting with people and organizations in other fields
Challenge – closely examining the current situation, assumptions being made and the popular point of view. Strategic leaders focus on reflection and examination from multiple points of view by:
- searching for root causes and underlying issues not just the surface indicators
- identifying and examining assumptions
- actively seeking out alternative perspectives and encouraging debate
Interpret – the ability to accept and synthesize diverse and conflicting input and information. Strategic leaders seek new insights by:
- identifying multiple explanations for observations, issues and results
- actively seeking out and listening to diverse perspectives when analyzing information
- using both observational and analytical analysis
- taking a break and providing space for uncluttered analysis
Decide – use a disciplined process to make decisions, even when lacking information or time. Strategic leaders take responsibility for making decisions and using a robust process by:
- rejecting either-or scenarios and asking “what other options do we have?”
- identifying unexpected consequences
- keeping stakeholders informed on the status of the decision
- utilizing pilots and staged decisions
Align – discover common ground and buy-in among diverse perspectives and multiple stakeholders. Strategic leaders proactively build the trust needed to facilitate alignment between divergent points of view by:
- over communicating (early, often, 8 ways, 8 times, etc.)
- identifying and acknowledging concerns and issues in advance
- reaching out to resisters and listening before explaining
- recognizing when and where team members and stakeholders are willing to support the overall purpose or values of the organization
Learn – facilitate continuous organizational learning. Strategic leaders promote a culture of inquiry and learning lessons, both from success and failures, by:
- conducting after-action reviews and lessons learned sessions
- transparently sharing and communicating the information from the reviews and learning sessions
- recognizing and rewarding people who take action and utilize lessons learned
Strategic leadership requires a mix of all six essential elements but the good news is that leaders can develop them.
Are you ready for a short pop quiz to help you identify where you shine and where you may want to take action to become a more strategic leader? Here is a link to a short assessment developed by the Wharton School and DSI on the six essential elements of strategic leadership.