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How to be strategic without slowing down

Rebecca Houghton Founder - BoldHR

Ask any C-Suite leader how often they get to focus on the ‘The Strategy’ and they’ll tell you about 5-10 days a year.  Ask them how often they are being strategic and they’ll look at you funny – it’s every minute of every day.

I work with the C-Suite and their reports, the B-Suite.  As a B-Suite mentor, I too often hear mid-level leaders bemoaning that their job doesn’t offer them the opportunity to be Strategic or work on ‘more strategic initiatives’.  The concept that a more senior or more experienced leader gets to spend more time on Strategy is one of the holy grails of leadership – unless your job title is ‘Strategy Manager’, it doesn’t really exist.

Another fallacy that I hear often is “I can’t build a strategy for my function in the absence of one for my company or department”.  While it’s certainly easier to align your strategy to the corporate or functional one, it’s not essential – you can still build a strategy that fits your remit and guides your outcomes.  Don’t wait.

The third complaint I often hear is ‘I’m at the mercy of other people’s strategies’, which is truly disempowering.  By building your own agenda, you have a platform to support theirs and negotiate when the time is right.  By failing to do so, you’ll forever be at the mercy of theirs.

So how can you make that shift, build strategy at high speed, and become a B-Suite leader with C-Suite impact?

Big S or little s?
First, adjust your mindset.  Being strategic (little s) is something you can do today and every day without permission or promotion.  By doing it consistently and well, you’ll craft a reputation for being strategic – even before you get invited to contribute to The Strategy.  Waiting to be invited to contribute to the The Strategy in order to show how strategic you are is the wrong way around.  You decide.

Limit your approach for limitless results
Shorter strategic horizons.  The 5-year plan is dead.  As a B-Suite leader, you should be clear on what your business Strategy thinks will happen in 2-3 years and shape your functional Strategy around 1-2 years. This will ensure that you don’t overwhelm yourself with possibilities and focus on why, how and when your business will deliver the key contributions that support the corporate strategy.

Shorter planning horizons.  Shorter term planning allows you to measure progress more closely, allowing you to pivot if something isn’t having the anticipated effect.  Hitting short term goals also motivates people, simply because progress promotes more progress. I recommend quarterly horizons to ensure you are delivering on your goals and adjusting to new information and opportunities.

Shorter deck.  I coach my leaders to develop a three page deck for their strategic thinking, comprising:

  • Strategy – this will make sure that you focus only on what matters, you can communicate it easily and your audience will remember it easily. If it’s short and memorable it will get done. If it’s a 10-page document, it won’t even get read.
  • Prioritisation – agreeing your criteria for decision making as part of your strategy development means that you can make decisions rapidly without having to do over. Criteria for prioritisation are one of the first things that get forgotten, and this slows us down.
  • Plan – 12-18 mth plan outlining key deliverables, milestones and metrics per quarter.

Strategy: fast and slow
Being strategic doesn’t mean being slow – and acting fast doesn’t mean you do it with strategic considerations.  Dan Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow, explains that brains have two speeds.  In the same way, strategic thinkers also operate at two speeds.

Speed one is long range is commonly called keeping your eye on the bigger picture.  It exists to remind people why you are doing what you are doing and where it will take us.

Speed two is short range and ensures you deliver incremental value a regular intervals along the way to keep your stakeholder engaged and keeping proving your strategic value.

Strategy is not a solo sport
One big mistake that leaders often make when trying to develop a strategy quickly is to forget to engage others to contribute to the process; even when it’s a quick one.

I know what you’re thinking – the more people I get involved, the messier and more drawn out this becomes.

Too many of the wrong people will decrease your chances of alignment, so pick your stakeholders carefully. Ensure they are relevant contributors and invested beneficiaries.  Anyone else will cloud your ability to agree a strategic direction, make important decisions, agree a roadmap and do it all at speed.

Failing to engage the right people will result in a lack of alignment to your strategy.  This will derail you over a protracted period of time – your strategy, priorities, ability to make decisions, and timelines will all be challenged at every step of the process.

The great news about high-speed strategy is that it can be applied at a business, functional or initiative level with great effect, so if you’re struggling to be strategic at speed, find yourself at the mercy of other people’s priorities or feel that you need to anchor your plan to someone else’s strategy, try doing business differently.

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