No matter your role, your responsibilities, your company or your goals, you won’t be able to advance in your career without being able to leverage strategic thinking, whether you’re a senior manager or a new employee joining the workplace.
You may be ambitious, a self-starter, and ready to take decisive action to bring yourself closer to reaching your long-term goals but unless you can demonstrate that you’re a strategic thinker capable of pattern recognition, risk mitigation and seeing the bigger picture – you’re likely going to hit wall after wall no matter how much you excel in your role.
If you’re already in management or a senior position at your company, you may have encountered this already. Being passed over and sidelined while someone else receives the promotion you were chasing is never pleasant, especially if you know that you would perform better in that role than they would.
What exactly made senior management choose them over you? Assuming you do the same work and generate similar performance results, it’s likely down to the other person proving they’re a capable strategic thinker – an invaluable skill necessary for anyone in a management or leadership role.
What do we mean by strategic thinking?
The Harvard Business Review defines strategic thinking as a thought process in which “people create connections between ideas, plans, and people that others fail to see.”
In essence, it’s “big picture thinking” – taking a step back from looking at the details to gaze at the mosaic. The ability to see the nuances, connections and patterns between data and processes within a larger holistic context.
It’s proactive thinking instead of reactive thinking, decision-making that doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is executed with full awareness of the larger departmental and organisational effects. It’s not just risk identification, but also risk mitigation and planning. It’s risk-taking in the right context and situation where the benefits are worth the possibility of failure.
It’s all of the above and more.
Why is strategic thinking necessary?
Something that I see a lot within the workplace is the idea that advancing in your career is all about demonstrating what you already know – promising you’re capable of delivering certain results and then fulfilling that promise. While this is no doubt important – you need to prove you’re capable and dependable in your role before even thinking of moving up from it – it’s simply not enough to advance up the corporate ladder.
You need to go beyond demonstrating what you’ve already proven you know and can do – you need to develop and demonstrate you’re capable of thinking outside the boundaries of what you already know and leverage critical, and sometimes even unconventional, thinking to creatively solve problems and improve existing work processes.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a natural-born strategist to do this. Anyone can develop and nurture strategic thinking skills with practice and it’s something I believe everyone could benefit from – regardless of your goals or career ambitions, being able to think strategically will help you approach your work and creatively problem-solve in new and innovative ways.
How to become a strategic thinker in the workplace
Being able to leverage strategic thinking as part of your larger career-advancing strategy necessitates two things: development and demonstration – and they’re not the same thing. You may be an innately gifted strategic thinker, but unless you can actively demonstrate your abilities in a visible, measurable way, no one is going to take note.
Developing strategic thinking skills is a journey, not a destination. Strategic thinking is a mode of thought that requires consistent feeding and fueling, much like a fire. You can begin to develop strategic thinking skills by gaining exposure and experience in more strategic roles within your organisation.
Connect with strategic decision-makers in your company and volunteer to assist with projects that will give you more insight into how these people problem-solve and creatively approach challenges. Collaborate with more people and departments outside of your own to get exposure to outside ideas and approaches for overcoming cross-functional challenges, all of which will accelerate your out-of-the-box thinking and creative agility.
Most importantly, never stop learning – make it a part of your personal brand both inside and outside the workplace.
Being able to prove that you’re a strategic thinker will require you to make yourself visible to senior management and leaders. Applying it to your work, processes and interpersonal skills is fantastic, but you can’t expect anyone to notice unless you take the initiative to demonstrate it to the right people.
Show your seniors (whoever they might be) that you’re a strategic thinker by always having a point of view to share, whether it’s during meetings, one-on-one discussions or if you have an idea that you think will improve a task or process that you would like to share.
Being confident and prepared to share your ideas, regardless of how they will be received, demonstrates that you’re comfortable taking on larger decisions and actions that hold more weight in the company.
You can also demonstrate tangible evidence of your strategic thinking by sharing measurable results of an idea that you executed as a strategy. What was the problem or challenge and how did you approach it to creatively solve it? What steps and actions did you take and what were the results? How did your idea improve an existing process and how could it benefit the company on a larger scale?
Keep in mind that demonstrating your strategic thinking abilities won’t be an overnight endeavour. You’ll need to spend time planning where and how your skills can make a positive impact and why they’re necessary.
Then you’ll need to develop an actual strategy for implementing whatever changes need to take place and identifying what potential risks may pop up and how you can solve them. Lastly, you need to have clear results in mind for what you want to achieve and how you’ll measure them.
Through each of these steps, you’re utilising strategic thinking to form clear-cut plans of action for achieving the results you want.
Adding value to your role this way will not only help you develop the skills necessary for taking on more responsibility, whether it’s managing people or a large project or becoming a leader. It will also give a greater sense of control and agency within your role, improving your confidence and positioning you as a critical and indispensable part of your team, your department and, eventually, your organisation.
Don’t wait until you’re ready to transition to a new role or take on more responsibility to begin nurturing and implementing strategic thinking – the sooner you start, the stronger your chances will be for being selected for a promotion, or a management or leadership position when the time comes.