A strategic leader understands his or her company’s mission, possesses a vision and a plan for realizing it, and can execute.
I was talking to a man the other day at a corporate event when he uttered the death phrase. “I’m a very strategic person,” he said. I sighed inwardly, immediately tuned him out and politely waited until I could excuse myself. First, if you have to tell someone that you are “very strategic,” there’s a pretty good chance that you aren’t. Second, the idea of the “strategic leader” has become so ennobled in our current business environment that everyone feels they must be viewed as being strategic—or risk being ignored. It has become the corporate equivalent of the “cool kids” at school, and no one wants to be left out.
The problem is that in most cases the talk about being “very strategic” means one of two things. Either it is just blather, just words with nothing behind it. Or, worse, it becomes code for “I’m a big thinker,” with the subtext being “I’m a big thinker who doesn’t actually accomplish anything.” Neither of these will help us. The reason that everyone is talking about strategic leaders is because we desperately need strategic leaders in our IT organizations. So, the important question is, Are you a strategic leader?
I can almost see you mouthing the word “yes.” We all want to be, and to be seen as, a strategic leader. But are you? I believe there are three simple questions you can ask yourself that will tell you whether you are a strategic leader.
Do You Understand Your Mission?
The problem with talking about being “strategic” is that it causes us to think about it in isolation. But being strategic doesn’t start with strategy. It starts with your mission. Forget the over-scripted corporate mission statements. That’s not what I’m talking about. Your mission is simply your purpose. Why do you exist from a professional perspective? It is only in the context of understanding your mission and the mission of your organization that you can begin to be strategic. A strategy is a means to fulfilling your mission, yet most people never contemplate this idea of explicitly understanding their mission.
It is a shame that so many organizations have botched their mission statements. The idea is right. We must start by understanding our true purpose. Who we serve, why we serve them and how we intend to provide value to them. A true mission statement is powerful in its simplicity and its ability to bring people together. And it is the source of everything that follows. So if you want to be a strategic leader, begin with clearly understanding your mission and the mission of your organization.
Do You Have a Vision?
Understanding your purpose is the starting point. It tells you who you are and why you exist. But where are you going? The purpose of a strategy is to define what needs to be done to accomplish some goal or objective. But you need to know what that goal or objective is for a strategy to be effective. A “vision” is simply a picture of some future state. What do you want your organization to look like, act like and feel like when you get to some future point-in-time? When you can clearly articulate your vision, it starts to become real and tangible. It begins to be something that you and your team can see becoming a reality. And as you articulate your vision, what you must do to realize that vision starts to become clearer and clearer.
In its simplest form, a strategy is a roadmap of specific steps or actions that will take you from your current state to your desired future state. The further out your vision takes you, the more difficult it is to contemplate the various aspects of that roadmap and, therefore, the more strategic it must be. Yet being strategic is actually pretty straight forward. It is a step in a process. It’s not about sitting in an ivory tower and thinking big, crazy ideas. And it’s not a personal characteristic like being tall or having a fun personality. Being strategic is an action, not a state of being. In fact, I don’t think that you should ever say someone is strategic; I think that you can simply say that you are being strategic, which is to say that you are actively engaged in executing this process.
I believe that anyone can be strategic. It is simply a matter of choosing to explicitly go through this process. Ask yourself, What is my purpose? Why am I here? What value do I provide and to whom? From that context, where am I going? Where does my organization need to go to fulfill that purpose? With that destination in mind, what do I need to be doing to get there? What will it require? That’s being strategic. And it doesn’t require a crystal ball. However, there is one more question you must ask yourself if you want to be a strategic leader.
Can You Execute?
A strategy is worthless if it does not get executed. A strategy fails if it does not lead you to the vision that it was designed to realize. To be strategic is to be focused on realizing that vision. It’s not about “thinking outside of the box” or being a “big idea person” unless that type of freewheeling, open thinking is required to help you reach your vision. Most of the time, though, it isn’t. In most cases, the most powerful strategies are, in fact, the simplest. They are not elaborate, intricate plans that require everything to go just right in order to succeed. The most powerful strategies are often the simplest because the simplest strategies are the ones most likely to be flawlessly executed.
If you cannot connect the dots between the “what” of a strategy and the “how” of an execution plan, you will never be a strategic leader. You will simply be a person with a lot of really good ideas. But, frankly, we have enough of those people. What we need are leaders who can see the future, devise strategies to take us there and create simple execution plans that we all can use to get the job done. That’s what it means to be strategic. And that’s what we need in every IT leader as we enter this new era for IT organizations.
This article was originally published on 04-03-2013
Founder & Institute Fellow
Charles Araujo is a technology analyst and internationally recognized authority on the Digital Enterprise and Leadership in the Digital Era who advises technology companies and enterprise leaders on how to navigate the transition from the Industrial Age to the Digital Era. Having spent over thirty years in the technology industry, he has been researching Digital Transformation long before it became the uber-buzzword of today, and is now focused on helping Digital Era Leaders prepare themselves and their organizations as the macro trends of the primacy of the customer and the primacy of the algorithm collide, ushering us into what he calls The New Human Age.
Principal Analyst with Intellyx, founder of The Institute for Digital Transformation, author of three books, and most recently the co-founder (with his wife) of The MAPS Institute, he is a sought-after keynote speaker and has been quoted or published in CIO, Time, InformationWeek, CIO Insight, NetworkWorld, Computerworld, USA Today, and Forbes.