We’ve all come across the corporate strategies which don’t make any sense. In big hierarchical organizations, strategy documents often become a document that no one except the few who put it together and approved it, understand. Yet somehow, everyone is supposed to know about it. This has given strategy a bad name.
But strategy really can make everything easier, empowering both you and your team, and making all your decisions easier. A great strategy helps give everyone the framework for decision making, allowing better delegation and ensuring you are all working on the same end goal. Without a strategy you have to constantly manage situations and make far more decisions. A great strategy is what sets leaders apart from managers.
How to be a strategic leader rather than an action based manager
Ever wondered what it is that means you are a leader, even when you don’t have the leadership job title or the managerial responsibilities to go along with it? What about the CEOs who everyone views as a boss, but definitely not a leader? You can drill down into the qualities of a leader, such as active listening, delegating, being decisive, but all of those require one thing to allow all those other actions to happen: strategy.
A great leader isn’t just someone who manages to get people to follow along and do the right things, but they have a reason, a purpose, for making those people follow.
And that purpose isn’t just a vision or mission. It is a strategy that allows the vision and mission to happen.
Moving away from completing today’s tasks, one tactic at a time, to a longer-term strategy, helps to achieve not only your goals but your business’ goals. It is the foundation that great leadership is built on. A strategy helps you know why something needs to be done, how important it is, when and how to prioritise something and gives you the tools to convince others of the need to complete the task.
Getting away from the todo list
It is very easy to spend our days focused on the todo list. And often the todo list is full of other people’s priorities, email actions and really based on who is making the most noise. The person that keeps popping emails in your inbox, or who keeps calling you/popping by your desk will often get the most attention. Your strategy helps move you away from this and makes sure you find the time to move forward towards your goals, not someone else’s. Your top action every day should be based on your strategy, not from that ever growing todo list.
Using your strategy as a framework for decision-making
A good strategy helps you decide what opportunities to take.
Many of us are ‘yes’ people – we say yes to lots of things, including many amazing opportunities.
But it is important to remember that every time we say yes to something, we are actually saying no to many other things.
We are setting ourselves up to fail because we take on too much.
Early on in my career, I was told I had to say yes to everything or it would damage my career. Unfortunately, I took that completely to heart and didn’t know that I needed to moderate my positive responses. I didn’t just drop the priorities that were good for my career, I ended up working crazy hours and doing a poor job on things I’d committed to doing because I was overcommitted, oversubscribed and overworked.
If I’d worked out a strategy, whether for my personal development and career or for the business and role I was in, I would have had a framework to help make those decisions. And as I was early on in my career, a good personal strategy, particularly focused on the business I was in, would have provided me with a framework for why I was saying no – a difficult thing when you are just getting started!
These days I live by my strategy as a decision-making framework. I’m honoured to be offered many opportunities to speak and meet amazing people. But before I say yes to everything, finding myself on the road every other week, and unable to do the things that actually matters the most to me and my business (serving my clients and running my charity!), I look at my strategy and see if this opportunity will help fulfil one of my strategic goals. If it doesn’t, I have to have a really good reason to do it!
How to create a strategy
Putting together a strategy doesn’t need to be difficult. There are lots of fancy templates out there, and sometimes these make a lot of sense. But to start with, it is worth just asking yourself a few questions and getting these documented.
- What does success look like for you/your business?
- To achieve that vision of success where do you want to be in X months/years and what needs to be done to get there?
- Does that mean that something needs to change right now?
- Do you need to refocus your target audience, change your support structures, hire more people, implement more scalable practices etc.?
- How will what you/your team does influence the goals of the business? How can you blow those goals out of the water? Don’t just think small, think big, aim high!
- Finally, develop a purpose statement. What would normally be a vision and mission is often easier to think of as a purpose. What is the point of your work, and how does it impact the wider purpose of the business. If you are the business owner, what is the business’ purpose? And avoid having a purpose that is just about money, unless that is the thing that really is driving you. Find out what the money actually means. Why is that way of making money important to you? How are you helping people? What problem are you solving?)
Once you have the above questions answered and recorded, it is worth asking yourself the following question every single day:
What do I need to do right now to achieve my goals?
A strategy should never be ‘write and forget’. Make sure you regularly revisit your strategy. Build it into your monthly or quarterly review. If you are a business owner you should do this weekly or monthly! A good strategy doesn’t stand still but changes as you understand things better. That doesn’t mean you change direction every week (that is not a good strategy!) but you should be willing to update the strategy based on new information.
Don’t jump from strategy to strategy, but remain flexible. Anticipate change, and adapt to grow, while avoiding appearing haphazard.
Making time for strategy
Being busy is seen as a sign of social status. We like to feel important, sort after and needed. However, when we lean into the need to feel busy our creativity drops. And creativity is the number one skill needed for a good strategy.
Here are some ways to find the time for strategy (and make the most of it):
- Find out when your most productive time of day is. When do you feel most creative and able to allow ideas to flow? For most people, even if you are natural night owl, creativity is highest in the morning, because we haven’t had our decision making taken out of us. Protect this time and make sure it is used for strategy or something else similarly creative.
- Put processes and automations in place. Anything you do more than twice should be automated!
- Learn to delegate and trust. This may take time but is essential if you are going to have the impact you want.
- Recognise that strategy is your number one criteria for success. It isn’t something that can wait, or postponed indefinitely. Your future is on hold until you have a strategy.
- Remember that once you have a strategy a lot of things that currently take a lot of time will become quicker. Decision making will be easier because you will simply ask ‘is this aligned with our strategy’? You will be able to delegate more effectively if your strategy allows your team to make decisions within a clear and robust framework. You will get more buy-in from your team, and you will start to trust them more.
- Remember that creativity takes white space and time. It is great to schedule in ‘strategy time’. But remember that it won’t happen if you just have 30 minutes here and there. Block of significant time chunks to allow for ideas to develop.
- Try taking a break and/or doing something physical before starting on strategy. Creativity is boosted by physical activity (even just a short walk) and taking breaks.
- Minimise distractions.
- Make sure you are undisturbed. Work from home if you can or use a meeting room. If you have no other choice put on some white noise with your headphones on (avoid music with lyrics as these will distract you).
- Turn off email and notifications.
- Close down all those tabs.
- Shut everything other than the document you need.
- If you don’t need the internet for research, turn off your wifi!
How much time you should spend on strategy really depends on what business you are in. But I’m yet to meet someone who is actually spending enough time on strategy. It isn’t necessarily that strategy takes a lot of time, it is that strategy needs time to be developed. The ideas need brain space, or white space, for that creative thinking. Some of the strategy might be about collating industry data and norms, but anyone can do that task – delegate it! But to turn the data and purpose into a strategy takes creativity which comes from a place of pause.
If you are a CEO or Director the majority of your time should be spent on strategy. There are CEOs who delegate the majority of the decision making and tasks because they have such good strategies that their team is informed on how to make every decision. If you are new to strategy, developing a new line/team/product, more of your time needs to be devoted to strategic thinking. And remember a good strategy saves you time as it informs your decision making, reducing procrastination, decision fatigue and provides focus. It also makes delegation a whole lot easier.