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Strategic Thinking: A Key Skill Managers Should Acquire

Strategic Thinking: A Key Skill Managers Should Acquire

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By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University

As a manager, boss and supervisor for over 20 years, it often baffled me why subordinates would fail to see the big picture when we worked toward an organizational goal. Most workers knew HOW to do something, but not WHY we were doing it. They excelled at the tactics, but failed at strategic thinking and understanding the overall “big picture.”

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Strategic Thinking Separates Managers from Employees

This ability to excel in strategic thinking is the key factor that separates employees from managers, especially those employees who are seeking high-level management positions. While the term “management” is often overshadowed by conversations involving leadership, cultivating productive managers is a crucial part of today’s corporate and operational environment.

Management Structures and Managers Vary within Organizations

Management structures within organizations vary. For instance, depending on the management structure of your company, you can have a 1:10 ratio when it comes to managers and the team members who support them.

Organizations may also have a team leader, a pseudo-manager who is more task-oriented and ensures that work is completed. Ideally, a company should have a manager or team leader who is busy enough so that he/she cannot micromanage, but resourceful enough to provide resources and guidance that enhance productivity for workers.

Management Programs Often Don’t Teach Aspiring Managers How to Think Strategically

Many companies have structured leadership programs. However, management programs are lacking, especially those that teach and involve crucial conversations about strategic thinking.

Four Steps of Management

I’ve had several mentees over my career, and I’ve found that crucial conversations about strategic thinking are often overlooked. Good management can be summed up in four steps:

  1. Think
  2. Decide
  3. Do
  4. Repeat

But how do you teach future managers how to think strategically and incorporate that strategic thinking into their daily routine? Strategic thinking is more than merely pondering; it requires learning and is the foundation of any key decision.

Strategic Thinking Is Not an Easy Path

Strategic thinking takes many forms and highlights one’s intellectual prowess in many ways. Strategic thinkers realize that making a decision is not about themselves. There will be challenges and setbacks in business decisions, and it takes a collective perspective to reach a holistic determination. For example, strategic thinkers rarely make unilateral decisions, but rather utilize expertise from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Asking employees and other managers for their perspectives means being open to valuable viewpoints from multiple sources. Most managers will agree that the easy path is to make unilateral decisions, given one’s position and seniority. But a better tactic for making long-lasting strategic decisions leverage one’s abilities, skillset, education and interpersonal skills to reach an organizational goal.

Strategic thinkers use all the tools in their toolbox to gain buy-in from others in the organization. Gaining buy-in means using both logic and emotion, as well as not being timid about thinking outside the box.

Strategic thinkers constantly question the implications of both new ideas and older, more familiar ideas. Strategic thinkers, unlike tactical thinkers, are forward-thinking and consider the impact of business decisions not just for the here and now, but also for future generations.

How to Develop a Strategic Thinking Mindset

According to Brainzooming, developing a strategic mindset means that potential managers should:

  • Seek to do things differently and not just incrementally better — A strategic thinker integrates these same ideas to create powerful connections.
  • Be a risk taker who does not fear failure — There should be a focus on results in a holistic manner, looking for the next biggest result to deliver.
  • Seek out strategic initiatives rather than focus on operational matters — A strategic thinker refines information to build a broad knowledge base with robust insights.
  • Inspire others — Each person should surround himself/herself with the best tactical and strategic thinkers and encourage them to think in a futuristic manner.
  • Consider the big picture and system interdependencies — Instead of avoiding complexities, managers embrace the possibilities.

Strategic thinking includes building a network of people who have diverse perspectives, backgrounds and expertise. It takes time, effort and a commitment to engage those people on a regular basis.

For managers, this strategy requires some vulnerability and becoming comfortable with sharing key aspects of one’s background that can help others to learn what makes you tick. This is the very essence of becoming the best manager possible.

Strategic Thinkers Keep Going and Don’t Quit

Last but not least, strategic thinkers keep going and don’t quit. In business, everyone will have formidable opponents, challenges and setbacks.

But strategic thinking helps you overcome every hurdle to reach an organizational goal. Strategic thinkers strive to learn as much information possible about a situation before making a business decision. Learning is more than just reading books; it includes taking the time to learn, integrate and advance a business initiative.

When it comes to strategic thinking, if you are not making a change, then you are choosing the status quo. With anything new, there will be challenges, setbacks, and adversity, but the rewards can be great and benefit many future generations.

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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