The 5 Actions of the Strategic Leaders



GUEST BLOG – March HR Learn Speaker:
John Austin, PhD


“I want my managers to be more strategic”

I hear this statement over and over in my executive education classes and in my work as an executive development consultant. It is a vague statement, isn’t it? What exactly does it mean to “be more strategic”? I’ve asked this question in surveys, in conversations, and in classes. “Be more strategic” tends to include a number of things:

  • Make high quality decisions that align with other decisions being made within the organization
  • Consider long-term implications of choices made on a day-to-day basis
  • Proactively engage and consider the interests of multiple stakeholders as a matter of course when making decisions
  • Routinely challenge conventional mindsets of the organization and industry

The HR professional must be strategic to be effective

The very nature of HR requires proactive alignment. The HR professional bridges organizational systems, translates ideas into practice, drives person-organization fit, and maintains compliance with numerous external stakeholders. Without strategic thinking skills within the HR function, an organization is doomed to a reactive existence. The organization without strategic HR professionals will be constantly buffeted by unanticipated industry shifts, be fighting a losing fight for scarce human capital, and be constantly at risk of regulatory censure.

Consider the example of human capital planning. While many organizations have taken time to identify long-term competency needs, far fewer organizations routinely match that work with the day-to-day task of filling vacant positions. The disconnect between future strategic needs and present day tactical needs is often stark. At the end of the day, tactical, immediate needs win out. Bridging the divide between the tactical and the strategic, the short-term demands and the long-term aspirations, requires a leader with strategic thinking skills.

The 5 actions of a strategic leader

What are those skills? In our work with leaders across industries we have observed actions that reflect an underlying strategic thinking mindset.  These types of actions tend to prompt others to identify the actor as a strategic leader.

  • Solve the right problem. Strategic thinkers seek out multiple perspectives and actively question organization and industry assumptions. Strategic thinkers ask questions like “How would our customers see this problem?” or “Why does this issue come up every year? What are we missing?”
  • Avoid decision traps. Strategic thinkers look for signs of overconfidence and the confirmation bias. They look for evidence they might be wrong and work to avoid discounting opinions of those with whom they disagree. They understand the power of stories to persuade and are careful when assessing information to avoid non-rational escalation of commitment to losing courses of action.
  • Manage uncertainty and translate the insights into actions. Strategic thinkers know what they don’t know. They seek to understand environmental uncertainties not just environmental trends (we have a tendency to overweight trends because they are quantifiable). However, strategic leaders do not just monitor uncertainties, they link them to actions by prioritizing actions that add value across a wide range of futures.
  • Effectively use their team to improve decisions. Strategic thinking drives strategic leadership as soon as you bring others into the picture. Strategic thinkers continually assess the capability, motivation, and focus of their teams. They use their insight to match team member expertise and tasks, to better develop their teams, and ensure they have the right people for the right task at the right time.
  • Sustain a strategy. Another challenge posed by the continuous tension between short-term success and long-term success is seen in the difficulty organizations have sustaining successful strategies. Part of this is due to our tendency to reward leaders who are seen as first movers and innovators far more than we reward leaders who sustain success. Strategic leaders dedicate time to building a broad sense of ownership for strategic initiatives. They also fight the confirmation bias through use of frequent situational assessments and a willingness to modify decisions as the environment changes.

There are few, if any, industries right now in which uncertainty is shrinking. An organization’s ability to succeed in such an environment is limited by the quality of its people. Skilled strategic thinkers within the organization can help an organization survive. Skilled strategic thinkers within the HR function can help an organization thrive.

For more, see Dr. Austin’s recently published book, Unquestioned Brilliance: Navigating a Fundamental Leadership Trap.