Developing Strategic Skills

In his book, The Unwritten Rules: The 6 Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level, John Beeson says demonstrating strategic skills is imperative to be promoted to the executive level.  But in the twelve plus years since Beeson’s book was published, employers are increasingly looking for these skills at all levels of the organization.

According to the Emeritus 2021 Global Career Impact Survey of 2,200 professionals worldwide, business strategy was ranked 5th on the list of skills employers are looking for in today’s workforce behind artificial intelligence, leadership, analytics and machine learning (link).

If strategy is so important, then what is it? Why is it important? And how can you develop strategic skills?

What is Strategy?

Strategy is a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim according to most dictionaries.  Its origins are military, but in a business context, a strategy helps the business succeed over the long run. Michael E. Porter, considered the father of modern strategy, said “Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.”

When advising clients, I ask them to think about strategy as a combination of three skills / activities that need to be practiced over time:

  1. Strategic Planning – the ability to guide a team through the process of defining where you want to take an organization, outlining the major actions to get there, and articulating how your value proposition will allow you to succeed against competitors and competing options.
  2. Strategic Thinking – improving the quality of inputs and factors (e.g., data, trends, opinions, etc.) you use when making decisions.
  3. Business Modeling – the ability to manage the key components of your business model and recognizing when it needs to change.

Why is Strategy Important?

Simply put – speed and complexity.  The pace of business continues to increase.  A recent study by McKinsey found that the average lifespan of companies listed in Standard & Poor’s 500 was 61 years in 1958. Today, it is less than 18 years.  McKinsey believes that, in 2027, 75% of the companies currently quoted on the S&P 500 will have disappeared.

In the past we looked to senior leaders to develop the strategic direction and articulate the plan for getting there.  Our job was to focus on execution.  Today we ask employees at all levels of the organization to balance short-term and long-term goals.  We are asked to be customer-centric, to anticipate their needs while responding to marketplace trends.  The complexity of our jobs has increased as workers are more distributed across the globe.  Organizational structures are flatter, with less day-to-day management, training, and support.

Developing and demonstrating strategic skills is no longer a differentiator, but a foundational skill necessary to keep your existing job and qualify for promotions.  So, what can you do to be ready?  The first thing is to adopt a mindset that demystifies strategy.  When I teach strategy people always think I am talking about something that is academic, complicated, and focused on the distant future.  The best strategists I know focus on action and the present.  They ask, what can I do today that will deliver results today?  What can I do today that will prepare me and the organization to be successful in a year?  What can I do today that will lead to success in three years?  If you adopt that mindset, strategy will become action-oriented, with a direct link to achieving your goals.

Four Articles for Developing Strategic Skills

I love reading books, but many people don’t have the time.  Therefore, I use articles and book summaries to highlight key principles.  I recommend the following to get you started.

  1. What is Strategy by Michael E. Porter – Harvard Business Review article
    You should start off with the father of modern strategy. It outlines why being operationally effective is not enough for a company to outperform its rivals in the long run.
  2. Can You Say Wat Your Strategy Is? By David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad – Harvard Business review article
    Most leaders are not able to articulate their strategy in 35 words or less. This article will help you develop your objective (what you are trying to achieve); scope (the boundaries of your work); and competitive advantage (what you will do differently or better than your competitors).
  3. The Granularity of Growth by Patrick Viguerie, Sven Smit and Mehrdad Baghai – a John Wiley & Sons book, but summaries are available
    Competitive advantage and growth comes from rigorous segmentation. It provides a framework for micro-segmentation and how to turn insight into competitive advantage and growth.
  4. Reinventing Your Business Model by Mark W. Johnson, Clayton M. Christensen, and Henning Kagermann – Harvard Business Review article
    Great strategic thinkers understand and manage the elements of their business model. They know how to analyze the internal and external forces that might require you to change elements of your model. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how and where people work.

Bottom Line

Developing strategic skills is just a matter of practice.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

The goal is not “predicting the future” or “being right.”  You want to practice identifying and analyzing trends, developing assumptions, and making decisions based on your thinking.  Over time you will hone your strategic skills, be better prepared to adapt to the unexpected, and create your future.

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