Are you a strategic leader?
Wait, don’t answer that. As much as the term strategic is thrown around, it’s not a simple question. Nor is strategic leadership a one-time commitment you can add to your resume like a job certification.
Strategic leaders drive progress toward top-level organizational goals—the stuff the organization really cares about. They keep their eyes on the big picture, align their teams to a consistent vision, and don’t hesitate to make course corrections based on new information. Strategic leaders connect everything they do back to the big goal at the top. Other leaders can clearly see that a strategic leader at any level of the organization is focused on the right things.
In reality, strategic leadership is hardly a clear-cut concept. There are over 8,000 books on Amazon about strategic leadership. Countless leaders think they’re strategic, and yet we’ve had the personal experience of seeing people passed over for promotions because they aren’t perceived as big-picture thinkers.
The way you lead is just as critical as the way others see you leading.
You may think you’re focused on top-level goals and driving business performance, but here’s a hard truth: if the people around you don’t see you living the vision every day, you’re like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up a mountain and having it roll back down just as it nears the peak. The imperative for L&D leaders is stronger than almost any other function in the organization for many reasons, including the function’s past reputation as a cost center. You must connect your actions to business results in big and small ways all the time.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I truly understand the big picture of the organization and my place within it? Can I explain it in laymen’s terms?
- Do I know what’s going on inside and outside of the company?
- Am I accountable for my actions?
- Do I convey a credible executive presence?
- Do I show up on time and prepared for meetings and appointments?
- Is my communication style clear, concise, and motivating?
- Do I listen with the intent to hear when others communicate with me?
- Do I make time for professional and self-development, at least once a month, so I can stay at the top of my field?
If you answered no to any of those questions, it’s highly likely that other leaders (or the people on your team) don’t perceive you as a strategic leader. Did you skim the list without even thinking about the answers? That’s another indicator—strategic leaders carve out strategic think time, and if you’re in such a rush to get to the end of this article that you aren’t giving yourself the time to really read it, then you may be suffering from a lack space to let your brain do its critical work, too.
Showing up is not enough.
While showing up as strategic is crucial, it’s only the foundation. You also have to act and make decisions based on a clear vision and sound information. It starts with understanding the vision of your organization, and then creating an aligned vision for L&D. Everyone on your team needs to clearly understand that vision and how their contributions are connected. Strategic L&D leaders also create a clear strategic plan, engage stakeholders for planning and execution of initiatives, monitor business data related to progress, and are prepared to pivot when data shows the function is off track.
L&D can be a challenging function to lead strategically because the desired end results are often unclear when it comes to hard financial metrics. If you’re leading a sales function, you have a financial goal for the year and can clearly see progress toward that goal via your sales funnel. Goals in L&D are often more nebulous. How can you show that your initiatives are having a positive impact on employee retention or building a future leadership pipeline? There are lots of different methodologies out there today for answering these questions; we prefer a tool called the Impact BlueprintSM. Whatever you choose, it’s imperative that you figure it out if you hope to be seen as strategic, because you’ll need to connect those dots for other leaders in the organization.
Consider the examples of two different L&D leaders sharing results from a training program for hourly store employees:
For the stores where we deployed the training, 687 hourly employees have completed the program, and 78% of them passed the assessment on the first try. They also gave the course really high ratings—an average of 4.5 stars. These numbers show that the training did a good job of giving the employees new skills to do their jobs better.
Last month, our regional managers asked whether the time their hourly employees spent in training was really worth taking them away from the sales floor. The answer to that question is yes. Stores that have adopted the new training program have experienced a 20% increase in retention compared to stores in similar markets that haven’t adopted the program. At a time of the year when our workforce is typically turning over, this impressive increase shows that we need to roll out the training program in all stores across the country.
Ahmed is giving results that are among the leading indicators of a potentially successful program, but she hasn’t shared anything relevant to the metrics that are on the minds of senior leadership. We call Ahmed's results vanity metrics because they show L&D’s efforts in a positive light but don’t answer the business question. Vanity metrics are important within L&D—just like your LMS, building SCORM-compliant courses, following the ADDIE model, and using Kirkpatrick evaluation tools. But those are all within your internal area of expertise, and high-level business leaders generally trust that you’re using the industry-standard practices to get your job done. Compare Ahmed's response to Sam’s, which is a story that includes something senior leaders love to hear about: retaining front-line talent. Not only is Sam demonstrating her awareness of the company’s big picture, but she’s sharing data that shows what her team has accomplished.
Think back to the last time you shared results of an initiative with senior leadership—were you a Ahmed or a Sam?
So, are you a strategic leader?
Staying focused on the big picture, delivering results that matter, showing up strategic, and identifying when it’s time to pivot is a tall order for any leader! Moreover, it’s not a one-and-done box to check on your to-do list. Strategic leadership is a journey, and even the best strategic leaders are working hard to stay at the top every single day.
Here are a few ideas to help you along your strategic L&D leadership journey—whether you’re starting out or need a jump-start.
Create a vision for your career and your life. How do you want your life to look? No matter your age, it’s always a good time to evaluate what you’re doing and where you’re going. As you create a plan for yourself, a personal development board can help keep you on track. Evaluate your presence. Make an honest assessment of your communication style, your appearance, your habits, and the way other leaders perceive you. Are you compatible with the top-performing leaders in your company, or do you stick out in some way? Be memorable for your accomplishments, not your gaffes.
Get control of your calendar. When someone asks how things are going, what’s your typical answer? If you launch into a diatribe about how busy you are, you’re putting up a huge block to being seen as strategic. There are lots of great methods for prioritizing your tasks and creating a manageable schedule. When you do commit to something, show up on time and be fully present.
Be informed about your company and the market. There are many ways to really dig in, but start here: At the very least, are you as knowledgeable about your organization as the average consumer? Make the time to stay on top of public information about your organization and understand the perceptions of your customers and the market.
Above all, remember to never be complacent. Even if you think you’re strategic today, there is always more to learn, and you’re always at risk of becoming obsolete over time. Make learning, growing, and developing your skills a life-long passion as you focus on the big picture and drive results that matter.
About the Authors
Diana Thomas, MBA, is an executive coach, host of the Talent Champions podcast, and past vice president of training, learning, and development for McDonald’s USA. Stacey Boyle, Ph.D., is Chief People Planner at Smarter People Planning, a consultancy that helps some of the world’s best companies answer their business questions about investments in people. Diana and Stacey are co-authors of the 2018 book Be More Strategic in Business: How to Win Through Stronger Leadership and Smarter Decisions. Contact them to inquire about speaking, coaching, and consulting via the Be More Strategic website.