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Become a Leader by Thinking Strategically

To get and keep a job in today’s competitive economy, one must maintain his or her technical, occupational, or professional competence. However, to truly succeed, win promotions, and become a leader, you need to move beyond competence and think strategically about how to make your organization more successful.

How to think strategically

The following questions can help you think strategically about improving your organization's operations. By identifying opportunities to innovate, solve problems, collaborate, and otherwise contribute to the mission of your organization, you begin to think like a leader. Leadership skills like strategic planning are indispensable for most organizations.

When you ask yourself these questions, make appropriate changes to the language if you work for a nonprofit organization or public sector agency. For instance, you might change "customer" to "client" or "profits" and "profitable growth" to "client satisfaction."

  1. Financial Information. What factors drive our profitability? What are our major sources of revenue? What are our major costs? What can I or my team do to reduce or control these costs?
  2. Customer Insights. What factors drive our growth? Who are our customers, and why do they buy from us rather than from our competitors? What do customers care about most when they purchase or use our products or services? How can I or my team maintain or increase the appeal of our products or services? What can we do to improve customer service in ways that will increase customer loyalty?
  3. Competitor Insights. Who are our competitors, and why do their customers do business with them rather than with us? What can I or my team do to make our products or services more attractive to our competitors' customers?
  4. Growth Opportunity. What unmet or poorly met needs do our customers have, and what new or improved products or services could we develop that would meet those needs? 
  5. Integration. What role does each of the various departments throughout our company play in the quest for profitable growth? What prevents the different departments from collaborating as well as they might? What can I or my team do to promote collaboration?
  6. Trends and Challenges. What technological, economic, regulatory, social, and other developments and trends affect our business? Which of these developments pose threats to us and what changes must we embrace to deal with those threats? Which of these developments create opportunities for us, and how might we take advantage of those opportunities?  

To answer many of these questions, you will have to seek support from people within your organization and conduct research. Here are some tips for finding answers to these questions.

  • Ask your immediate supervisors about their priorities, challenges, and key performance measures they track, and for their views on each of the questions.
  • Ask you supervisor to arrange for you to have conversations with leaders several levels up the chain of command, and ask them the same questions. If your organization's leaders hold town hall meetings or similar forums, take advantage of opportunities to ask several of these questions.
  • Ask if you can start attending upper-level meetings at which organization-wide issues are discussed.
  • Develop relationships with your peers in other departments and discuss ways to improve collaboration across the organization. 
  • Volunteer to serve on cross-departmental teams to gain a better understanding of how they affect your department, and how your department affects them.
  • Read print or online trade journals and websites related to your industry. If you’re not sure what the most important information sources are, ask those several levels above you for their recommendations.
  • Follow your organization online, paying attention to news articles.
  • Read your company's annual report.
  • Spend time talking to customers about how they use the products or services your organization provides, what they like and dislike about them, and what they like and dislike about the expedience of purchasing them. Also, try to discover any unmet needs they have that your business might be able to address with new products or services.
  • A popular term for the type of expertise we’ve been discussing is 'business acumen." Use your favorite internet search engine to search for articles and books for more information about this concept.

Share your ideas with leadership

Once you've found answers to these questions, you will likely have strategic insights about how to help your organization succeed. Share your insights with managing staff and your supervisor. Managing staff and supervisors often appreciate such initiative to help their organization. Don't be surprised if you're asked to lead projects that arise from your insights - leading such projects will help you on your way to obtaining leadership roles within your organization and beyond.