Strategic leadership occurs in three key places within an organization: (1) At the top, where strategy for a number of business units is formulated over a given time period; (2) In the middle, where top down strategy is translated into a business unit or regional strategy and goals are created; and (3) At a department level, where the business unit strategy goals are translated into a number of individual objectives which are executed.
At these three key levels, strategic leadership provides the scope and direction to help drive success for the organization. A major part of this success is derived from effectively managing continuous change through improvements to both people and processes. For that reason, all executives and managers must have the tools necessary for strategy formulation and implementation, and they must be ready to use those tools at a moment’s notice. Managing in an environment of change and uncertainty requires strategic leaders to consistently maintain a sense of direction, while simultaneously building ownership of goals and objectives for action within the teams they are responsible for leading.
The fusion between an analytical point of view, utilized to build the processes for a successful strategy, and a human element, which allows managers and executives to build successful, motivated, performing teams is essential to strategic leadership success.
Strategic leadership often fails because the right balance between these two perspectives is not struck. If there is a high concentration on the execution of the process and the outcome, often with disregard for the human dimension, a leader is seen to be a task master, and dispirited individuals will be unmotivated to perform, often “voting with their feet.” If leaders are most concerned about the human dimensions at the expense of the process or the work ethic, work can take on the feeling of a “country club.” A good place to go to work, but little clarity about what people are there to do.
So, successful strategic leadership, wherever you are in the organization, must be a careful balance between analytics and process development and the human dimension.
Let’s consider some key questions that may be asked within these two key dimensions:
Analytic and process: Strategic leaders should always strive to be the designer of the "perfect strategy" by interpreting the market and its needs, placing it in line with the strengths, core purpose and competence of the organization and its workforce. No strategy is complete unless it is executed and this implementation should be closely matched to or exceed the strategy plan.
Human dimension: The constructed “perfect strategy” should be owned by all pertinent people – up, sideways and down the organization. Therefore, good strategic leaders collaborate in the construction of the strategy with all vital stakeholders and members of their teams. While the strategy is being constructed, owned and executed, leaders should ensure that all grow knowledge and skills in strategic thinking. This evolution towards a strategically consciously competent membership group will enable the organization to become more proactive and faster to act as change in the market, customers and competitors continuously occurs.
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Analytic and process: The most important element is to continue to provide strong direction in line with overall strategies and core purposes of the organization. A strong vision should be maintained, as well as specific success measures. This means that at sometimes leadership must be seen to be from the front, setting examples, being the first to try out a new initiative. But equally, the leader must learn to lead from the middle or the rear and when new initiatives, processes or solutions are suggested by others, be the first to give praise and reward. What the leader should avoid is to personally supply the “only right one answer.”
Human dimension: Good strategic leaders should see themselves as becoming coaches and mentors. The job becomes one of interpreting the organization’s strategy and purpose, so that when strategy is proposed they can explain why it may not work, or that the process proposed is better than the one that is currently in place. It is important to ensure all are engaged and own the strategy that is continuously evolving and know the part they have to play in developing success through execution.
Analytic and process: The most important thing for the strategic leader to ensure is that their team members are comfortable and that they are fully competent to do the strategic task in hand. They should be consistently updated with the latest data, process knowledge and skills to be able to develop continuously changing strategy. It is also imperative that the leader enable understanding among teams about how each individual part of the strategy is fitting in with the whole. A financial person should understand the marketing plan. An operations manager should know all elements of what the strategy of customer service is.
Human dimension: A strategic leader must build a sense of citizenship among the members of the team. The end goal is to generate a sense of comfort and acceptance among team members, resulting in a sense of ownership across the organization. People in all teams work much more efficiently when they know where they are going, how they are going to get there, what they have to do to be successful for themselves, their team and organization and what it means to them and to the whole organization they are a part of once the success is being achieved.
Analytic and process: Twenty years ago, most organizations thought that the strategy making process was done annually, typically during one month of the year. The process was an essentially linear process with a distinct beginning and end. As each objective was completed, it would be checked off of a predefined list. This led to “snapshots” of points in time which had little to do with the ever evolving wants and needs of the organization’s customers and the outside world. The strategic leader focuses time on the process of change, goals and execution strategy that can be quantified and measured. Within this continuous change, innovation becomes a key driver, and this is seen by good leaders to be a number of continuous little steps that can be measured in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.
Human dimension: Vision is a very important aspect in ensuring that the work of strategy creation is never complete. An environment of continuing work in process, continuously shaped by interactions with customers and competitors, of being able to spot the next business opportunity should be engendered. Strategic leaders will constantly evaluate important assumptions and, based on feedback from team members, will make necessary changes to the strategy. Change becomes a mark of success, and those that gain market share or customer dependency should be seen as being successful.
Many think a good place to start is to create a common standardized vocabulary with a common set of frameworks or tools.
Jack Welch had a very simple vocabulary of only five questions. Within the five questions were nestled common tools set to test and answer the individual questions. Once all the questions were answered, using data, common tools and frameworks, ultimately an answer would present itself which Welch called “the big aha.”
Before the questions were asked, it was important to ensure a current understanding of why change should occur, and what this could mean to the organization. Then, the questions were asked:
A simple vocabulary, team leaders and members that understand common tools, frameworks and templates for success, who practice both the human and analytic dimensions, is a very good starting point. This is followed by learning and practice, learning and practice and more learning and practice.