First class coach

At my appraisal, my boss told me I have to become more strategic if I want to be promoted. How do I do that?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It often comes as quite a shock to people who have always focused on doing the job in hand and been rewarded for doing so to discover that they are suddenly required to become competent in a completely different skill. That requires using mental muscles that we are unused to exercising.

And, just as when we use our physical muscles in unfamiliar ways, our first attempts can be clumsy, even painful.

The classic way of increasing the strategic powers of senior executives is to send them to business school. This allows them to consider a variety of businesses through case studies, to work on a range of challenges and ways of overcoming them. As well as exploring a number of models through which to assess the organisation, business schools offer them the opportunity to spend time working alongside others with very different professional experiences and from different cultures. This helps them break out of the tunnel vision that can beset us if we work in the same company and industry for any length of time. Strategy is more about taking the helicopter view.

But don't despair if your organisation won't spend the money or can't spare you the time to go to business school: there are other ways to achieve a similar effect.

You can replicate approximately many parts of the experience. Reading good books on strategy will help. You can achieve the cross-fertilisation of ideas by having contact with others - through business clubs, or by talking to friends and colleagues who have worked in different sectors.

Get them to tell you about the strategies, successful and unsuccessful, they have experienced. Some may surprise you. Asked what business he considered McDonald's to be in, its CEO reportedly replied: 'Real estate.'

Try your hand at strategy-spotting. Strategies are all around you, reported in the business pages of newspapers, concealed in most pieces of advertising.

Work out what advertisers are trying to achieve and what is prompting them to take a particular tack.

Of course, strategies change all the time, sometimes because the environment, legislation or consumer expectations have presented an opportunity or closed a door, sometimes because technology has lurched forward and sometimes because the newly appointed CEO thinks it ought to. Some strategies need to change, but don't. Nothing fails like success, as IBM found to its cost when it ignored developments in personal computing and stuck to its mainframes 20 years ago, and it still hasn't caught up. Heinz used to dominate the soup market but was so wedded to tins that the company missed out on the huge growth in sales of other packaging formats, many of which command premium prices.

Some of the most successful strategies challenge the conventional wisdom of the marketplace. I've recently started working with the London Evening Standard, where the new management have taken over a newspaper in a sector previously regarded as in terminal decline and in six months have achieved a substantial shift in circulation, an increase in cover price (when the dailies are locked in a price war), and a growth in advertising revenue despite the depressed market. The team has achieved this by looking within at the real strengths and weaknesses of the newspaper, making the most of the former and reducing the latter, and being thoughtful about the opportunities and threats that loom. However, the newspaper will soon have a free-distribution competitor and this may prompt further strategic change.

Having a command of the vocabulary of strategy will help to promote the perception that you are a strategic thinker. Find some words to describe your organisation's current strategy - is it aggressive or conservative?

Are you managing a decline or riding the growth curve? If you have more than one product or service, how successful is your portfolio management?

Often, successful companies achieve consistency between their overall strategic goals and every aspect of their operation. How consistent is yours?

But before you go overboard in mugging up on the language and theory of strategy, it's worth keeping a sense of proportion. My friend Douglas McArthur, who has a reputation as a strategist, warns that strategy has become a greatly overrated concept. He describes it merely as 'thinking through the consequences of what we intend to do'. This means seeing further than the immediate impact on our department, our division, and our company.

Put that way, being strategic doesn't seem such a big challenge

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