Becoming a More Strategic Thinker

One aspiration that junior leaders have is to be more of a strategic thinker and often, they may not know where to start. A helpful way to get started is to first understand what strategic thinking is. One definition is that “strategic thinking is about analyzing opportunities and problems from a broad perspective and understanding the potential impact your actions may have on the future of your organization, your team, or your bottom line. (HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically, 2018)

To become a more strategic thinker, one must develop the habit of lifting one’s head above the day-to-day activities to be curious and learn more about what is happening in one’s industry and business. Knowing about relevant political, economic, social, technological, developments and trends, is a must as well. The arena may include one’s country, ones’ region, and the world at large. In other words, it helps to be an avid reader and asking questions about how might these trends and developments impact and change customer needs and wants, and your organization, its processes, and thus the talent and skills needed. If your learning style is not much of a reader, but more visual and auditory, then watching and listening to the news, events, podcasts, can be your go-to activities.

Actively immerse and engage yourself in what you learn. Knowledge can be powerful, especially when you put it to use. One way of engaging yourself is to list down questions to help you appreciate, understand, and organize what you are learning for use in thinking about opportunities and problems from a broad perspective. Here are some example questions to help you create more focused ones on your own:

  • What are the top three developments/trends impacting the companies in the industry/business?
  • How is each of these top developments/trends actually impacting the companies, industry/business?
  • How is each development/trend affecting our company/business now?
  • What opportunities are that we can take advantage/exploit for our stakeholders’ benefit?
  • What problems are there that are hidden opportunities to create new value? E.g., New products and/or services for key stakeholders/customers? Improvements in current products and/or services?
  • Who are our top three competitors and how is each one riding the waves of change?
  • What can we do differently from them to gain what specific advantages over them?
  • What do credible futurists predict about our industry/business? What alternative scenarios are there? What do our senior leaders believe and buy into? Do I agree? Disagree? Why?
  • What are we doing today to position us relative to these possible scenarios?
  • And so on.

In creating engaging questions to guide you in your learning and applying strategic thinking, tap your key stakeholders/customers. Identify those that may be most representative and/or influential and interview them and/or conduct Focus Group Discussions to discover and explore what’s on their mind, what’s most important for them, what needs, wants and aspirations. These may serve as a compass to narrow down opportunities and problems to work on. That is, those most promising in terms of what matters to creating value for them and thereby your company’s thriving in the next five to 10 years.

Create your own applied strategic thinking circle. To help motivate you and others to engage in analyzing opportunities and problems (to turn into opportunities) for your company, business unit, or department, get your team and peers involved. Share your goals with them and invite them to collaborate. Creating a circle of applied strategic thinkers need not be a company-sponsored activity. All it takes is a few like-minded leaders who want to collaborate to do this and do it. On the other hand, if the company will sponsor and support such an initiative, they can help provide direction and resources.

Finally, learn as much as you can about strategic management, strategic frameworks, and strategic tools, to give you new perspectives. Look for actionable ideas/tools to experiment with in your circle to help you develop promising and viable ideas to create new sustainable value.

So, if you are indeed determined to be more of a strategic thinker, what more specific goals will you identify and what next steps are you going to take?

How Can a Manager Develop Creativity and Innovation?

One of the key challenges facing organizations is the need to create new value through creativity and innovation. Can the ability to create (“creativity”) and introduce new ideas and methods (“innovation”) be learned? The answer is definitely a yes for both. Managers and leaders are key in taking the initiative.

Where can a manager/leader start? One can get initial ideas by Googling for articles and reads on the internet. There are plenty and the trick is to pick out ideas that resonate with you and your team. Creativity and innovation at work is best developed as a team competency and not just an individual one.

Begin with a strong intention followed by action. One can begin with a strong desire to be more creative and innovative and learn as much as possible about the context and processes that enable and strengthen these in one’s self and team. That is, the motivation must be strong enough to move one to transform intention into taking action. Wanting to be more creative and innovative but not taking any action will not develop this magically. Write down what your specific goal/s is/are.

Identify the specific areas for creativity and innovation. One does not operate in a vacuum, so the question is where is new value possible, and a must, to level-up the products and services given to customers/stakeholders? Where and what are the pain points that can be addressed? What unmet, and maybe not so conscious needs and wants, exist in customers/stakeholders that have yet to be addressed? No product, service, or process is perfect, and sometimes one solution causes a new problem, so there will definitely always be opportunities to create and innovate. The point is that one must have specific areas of interest and focus to create new value.

Think outside-the-box, but what box? Often, one does think of the need to “think outside-the-box” but is not clear about what this “box” is, really. One box may be the familiar, the way things are, the status quo, with which one becomes very comfortable, making it difficult to think beyond the familiar. Another box might be one’s self-limiting beliefs and assumptions about what is, can be, cannot be, what is right, what is wrong, and so on. A useful activity to gain insight on the the boxes that constrain us is to have a brainstorming session about “What are the boxes we live in?” Then a discussion of where these boxes come from, how these limit our thinking/ideas, and how to break out of them may give fresh perspectives. Another activity might be to brainstorm “What have we not tried yet? What if?” You get the idea.

Read broadly, not just about one’s specialty. To percolate or catalyze new ideas, one needs to read about many things of interest outside one’s specialty. New ideas are waiting to be discovered or given birth to, facilitated by immersing one’s self in different fields. Different helps to nudge new ideas. The concept of parallel thinking or lateral thinking from Edward de Bono can help one master a more curious and exploratory mindset to think about “what can be” instead of just “what is.”

Make the journey a team challenge, not just a personal challenge. As the adage goes, more heads are better than one, Yes, alright, sometimes, and in developing creativity and innovation, diversity can be a catalyst. Appreciating and encouraging diverse perspectives can fertilize new ideas. Part of the process is to identify what success measures the team can hold itself to so as to ascertain how it is progressing towards its goal to become more creative and innovative. The team can get inputs from its key stakeholders about such measures. For example, a new or reengineered process that cuts down cost by 80% and reduces transaction time by 50%. Whatever the success measures that makes sense in one’s situation, it helps to apply SMART.

Sharpen analytical and critical thinking skills. One can read references on how to achieve these, or take short training, plus learn about and apply Systems Thinking. Systems Thinking is built on both analytical and critical thinking skills. Learning and applying Systems Thinking requires more commitment and discipline, and may take more effort to master. Nevertheless, it would be well worth it. Check this out The Systems Thinker. To make the learning process more fun and exciting, check what programs may be available, public or customized for in-house needs, are available in a graduate school of business near you.

Recognize and reward creativity and innovation. Finally, work with your senior management and HR folks to design and implement a recognition and reward program for creativity and innovation for teams that deliver the goods on: new ideas = new value for customers/stakeholders = measurable business value.

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

One pitfall and self-defeating habit some managers have is that they want to do most, if not everything, themselves. What are the impacts of doing this? To such a manager, it can gobble up all their time and add to their stress. Often, there is not enough time to finish everything, and sometimes, the more important priorities are left undone while they struggle to complete urgent though less important work. Such a manager may stay stuck in this unexamined routine and find themselves irritable and angry at their teams/members.

To the team/members, they get used to passing the buck to their manager to get things done. Often, they may not even do any homework, e.g., initial data gathering, analysis and recommendations, to discuss with their manager. The manager may unwittingly reinforce this by fretting and then gathering the data, doing the analysis, and then instructing the team/members what to do. And so the cycle goes, the team learns to needlessly depend on and escalate work to the manager.

To break the cycle, the manager must make the first moves to enable them to focus on what must be their own priorities vs. those that can be delegated to empower and develop the team/members. In other words, separate the work only you can do because you have the requisite knowledge, skills and experience vs. the work that can be delegated to the team/members. Delegation is a tool to free the manager to focus on her priorities, as well as a tool to develop the team/members.

An experience that I had many years ago as a young management consultant was that one time I went to my boss to tell him about a problem I had on a project, he scowled and annoyingly said, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” I never forgot that bit of admonition. In other words, do not pass the buck to your boss and first work on resolving problems at your level. Consulting with the boss is fine, but first do your homework. Do not see him empty-handed. Escalating should be the last resort.

An important thing to remember is that maybe team members think they are doing the right thing by bringing up problems without solutions to the boss for her to solve. So, the manager must set very clear expectations about this, i.e., say something like, “I expect you to do your homework and resolve this problem at your level. If you need help, see me but be sure to have done your own thorough analysis and be ready to present your recommendations with well-thought out pros and cons.”

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Some considerations:

STOP: Stop thinking that you must do everything yourself to get work done well. Stop doing all the work, especially those that can and should be delegated. Stop wasting your time on work that should not be a priority for you to do.

START: Start working with each team member to identify and agree on specific developmental goals, e.g., knowledge and skills to be acquired, mastery to be achieved, etc.. Reflect on work that can be assigned/delegated to support the achievement of these goals. It may be a waste of your time to do it yourself, however, it may be the developmental assignment/experience that your team member needs.

Remember that you may need to teach, mentor and/or coach your team member depending on their current level of competence and motivation. Have a sit down with the person and discuss the assignment, your expectations, what support they may need from you or others.

CONTINUE: Continue believing that you have a capable team/members who need your confidence in them and your support to bring out their best and their talents. Continue to identify work to delegate and do so, and discuss with the team member the specific knowledge, skills ad experience that they will develop or sharpen to increase their own competence.

What is You Leadership Point of View?

Do you know what your leadership point of view is, and can you articulate and share it with the people you work with in ways that help bring out their best?

The Leadership Point of View Process (LPoV) was developed by Ken Blanchard and Madeleine Blanchard after reading Noel Tichy’s book, The Leadership Engine. The LPoV is your credo and tool for communicating with others what they need to know about you as a leader, and how they can work effectively with you.

To find your LPoV, Ken and Madeleine Blanchard suggest that you start by asking yourself these questions. Write down your answers and reflect on them. Remember, the LPoV is a self-discovery process. It takes time. For some, it may even last a lifetime.

* Who are the leaders who are inspiring you?
* What qualities do they have? What did they do that you found inspiring?
* Can you do these things? Do you possess these qualities? If not, can you develop them? If not, what will you do about it?
* What do you expect of yourself and others?
* What can others expect of you?
* How will you share this information with others?

You may use the process on your own or you may work with your coach. Leadership is a journey and leadership coaching can contribute to your development.

You can read more about the LPoV leadership coaching process in the article “Coaching Tools for the Leadership Journey” by Ken Blanchard, Madeleine Homan Blanchard, and Linda Miller

Seven Essentials of Encouraging the Heart

What is leadership and how do we help leaders in their continuing journey of development? There are many ideas, models, approaches and tools. One of the powerful ideas is the Seven Essentials of Encouraging the Heart from Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner which they wrote about in their book The Leadership Challenge and developed further in their follow-up book Encouraging the Heart. They assert that leadership is a relationship, and having a connection with one’s team and each team member is critical to being a successful leader.

The root word “cor” means heart. in Spanish, “corazon” means heart. Encouraging the Heart is about the principles and practices that support our basic human need to be appreciated for who we are and what we do. It’s about how leaders can apply specific principles and concrete practices. Leaders are made and not born, and anyone can become a more effective leader by working on their leadership practices and behaviors. The seven essentials give leaders specific actions and behaviors to apply day-to-day.

The Seven Essentials of Encouraging the Heart:
1. Set Clear Standards
2. Expect the Best
3. Pay Attention
4. Personalize Recognition
5. Tell the Story
6. Celebrate Together
7. Set the Example

In Encouraging the Heart workshops I have facilitated, I’ve realized that many managers and leaders really do not usually show appreciation nor give recognition to what their teams, especially individual staff, have accomplished and contributed to achieving the standards. Most are very task and results oriented and quickly move on to the next task without any acknowledgments given. The authors use the word standards to mean goals, expectations, or objectives as well as values or principles. Standards refer to standards of excellence, and must be aspirational to bring out the best in everyone.

Some reasons given by managers and leaders for not giving credit where credit is due include, “…they’re just doing their job…,” “…we may be seen as playing favorites…,” and ” …they may think we are not sincere…. The fear of being vulnerable and misinterpreted seem to be deep seated. Whatever, the reasons one may have, the workshop enables participants to refelct on their most memorable recognition received and given, do a self assessment of their current practices against the Encourgement Index, and then create an action plan for building up the use of the seven essentials. Participants focus on areas for improvement as well as enhancing their strengths.

At the end of the day, at the heart of effective leadership is genuinely caring for people and consistenly applying tested leadership principles and practices.

Relationship Mapping Tool, A Coaching Tool for the Leadership Journey

Most of us begin our careers as technical or functional specialists who are individual contributors. When we get promoted to a team leader or supervisory role, and then later on to a managerial and executive role, we must transition from specialists who are individual contributors to leaders who contribute primarily through the work of others. The higher we move up the organization, the greater our dependence on the help and goodwill of others to get work done and accomplish organizational goals.

The leap from specialist to leadership can be a tough challenge for many as it requires learning how to get things done through others. Skills in planning, organizing, coordinating, controlling, as well as communication skills, interpersonal skills, motivating skills, networking skills, to name a few, become more critical to success than the technical or functional skills through which we built our earlier success.

Leadership is a journey and leadership coaching can help the budding and perhaps struggling new leader or leader in a new role. One leadership coaching tool is Relationship Mapping developed by Scott Blanchard and Madeleine Homan discussed in the article “Coaching Tools for the Leadership Journey” by Ken Blanchard, Madeleine Homan Blanchard, and Linda Miller. The Relationship Mapping Tool and process involves these five steps:

1. Identify your key goals and milestones

Define clearly what must be accomplished and how these will be measured.

2. Create a relationship map for each goal

For each goal, identify the key persons/stakeholders who will be affected by efforts to achieve the goal and achieving the goal.

3. Analyze the key persons/stakeholders in your relationship map

Answer these questions for each key person/stakeholder:

* What are their main goals and objectives?
* How will it serve them for me to succeed–or fail?
* What is needed from them?
* How can they help–or hurt–the project?
* What is the person’s thinking style?
What will be needed to most effectively communicate with and influence him or her?
* What attitudes does the person have about me?
Is there respect, credibility and trust?
* How do I feel about the person?
Is there any judgment or bad history to complicate things?

4. Identify who are more/most important to the success of the goal or project

5. Create an action plan for each critical stakeholder

Create a mini action plan for deepening you relationship with each critical stakeholder. Actions can include going to the person and asking for advice, calling or emailing the person to get an opinion on something, spending more time with them to get to know them better, getting their inputs about the goal or project over or coffee or lunch, and other interactions that can help deepen the relationship.

Pay attention to how they see things, understand their point of view, what they focus on, what is their approach, and so on.

In another post, we will look at a similar tool focusing on stakeholder analysis for communications planning.

Situational Leadership and Executive Coaching, Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1 of the post, one interesting discovery I had is that Situational Leadership is also applicable to Executive Coaching.

“Executive coaching requires exceptional leadership and questioning skills to be effective. At no point is leadership more important than in assisting clients in defining their performance issues and identifying the underlying causes.”

This is how Paul Hershey and Roger Chevalier began their article on Situational Leadership and Executive Coaching, and it made me stop and think, again, about how asking powerful questions can make a difference in the coachee’s self awareness and create that “aha” moment. The first time I heard about asking powerful questions, I wasn’t sure what that really meant. But as our coaching class did the exercises on coming up with what we thought were powerful questions and discussed which were and weren’t, then I began to understand.

They added an Executive Coaching Guide to Situational Leadership to show how it provides a structure to guide executive coaches in working with their clients. The principle is the same in that executive coaches must adjust their leadership styles to their client’s readiness to perform a given task. Readiness refers to ability and willingness.

As a performance aid, the Executive Coaching Guide provides a process and a two-phased framework for interviewing, counseling and coaching situations. The first phase focuses on asessing a client’s readiness in dealing with each of his issues, performance or otherwise, and choosing an appropriate leadership style. Assessing readiness helps the coach choose the appropriate leadership style to work with his client. The coach asks open-ended questions to assess how the client sees the overall situation and gain insight on the his issues. The readiness level for each issue may vary.

The second phase focuses on selecting the appropriate leadership style to intervene in a manner that has the best probabilty of a positive outcome for the client. The coach matches his coaching leadership style, choosing from the following:

  • R1 – Client is unable and unwilling or not confident
  • S1 Prescribe – 1. Presents alternative courses of action. 2. Identify the best course of action. 3. Inform, describe, instruct, and direct.
  • R2 – Client is Unable but willing or confident
  • S2 – Develop – 1. Discuss ways to improve performance. 2. Reach agreement on best course of action. 3. Guide, persuade, explain, and train.
  • R3 – Client is able but unwilling or not confident
  • S3 – Reinforce – 1. Reinforce the process used and the progress made. 2. Reinforce self-worth and self esteem. 3. Encourage, support, motivate, and empower.
  • R4 – Client is able and willing or confident
  • S4 – Follow-up – 1. Document session in clien’t record. 2. Follow through on all commitmenets. 3. Monitor progress and prepare for next session.

Leading with questions in one of the most critical skills of executive coaches in working with clients to analyze performance gaps and causes, to set a reasonable and achieveable goal, to process options and decide on a course of action that moves the client forward.

The Executive Coaching Guide is published in Coaching for Leadership, Writings on Leadership from the World’s Greatest Coaches, Edited by Marshall Goldsmith, Laurence S. Lyons, and Sarah Mc. Arthur.

Situational Leadership and Executive Coaching, Part 1

In some of the continuing executive education classes I’ve taught where we did the Leader Effectiveness and Adaptability Description (L.E.A.D.) self-assessment questionnaire exercise developed by Paul Hershey and Kenneth Blanchard, I found out that many managers and executives are not familiar with the concept of Situational Leadership.

For those who did the exercise for the first time, it was definitely an eye opener for them to discover that their preferred or default leadership style may not always be the most appropriate in all situations. There is no one size that fits all in terms of leadership styles. It was also an eye opener that there is a model that one can use to assess the readiness of one’s team and team members and then adapt one’s leadership style.

In a nutshell, the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory states that instead of using just one style, successful leaders must change their leadership styles based on the task maturity of the team they are leading, and the realtionship and support the team needs to get the work done.

As tasks vary in complexity while the team’s ability to do the task also varies, managers can give more or less attention to the task vs. the realtionship and support to the team.

According to Hersey and Blanchard, there are four main leadership styles:

  • Telling (S1) – Leaders tell their people exactly what to do, and how to do it.
  • Selling (S2) – Leaders still provide information and direction, but there’s more communication with followers. Leaders “sell” their message to get the team on board.
  • Participating (S3) – Leaders focus more on the relationship and less on direction. The leader works with the team, and shares decision-making responsibilities.
  • Delegating (S4) – Leaders pass most of the responsibility onto the follower or group. The leaders still monitor progress, but they’re less involved in decisions.

Leadership Styles S1 and S2 focus on getting the task done, while Styles S3 and S4 focus on developing the team members’ abilities to work independently.

One interesting discovery I had is that Situational Leadership is also applicable to Executive Coaching. Read more about this in Part 2.