On Being “Strategic”

Ages ago, a work colleague / friend offered me the following piece of advice: “We need to make sure you’re seen as strategic”.

I’ve thought about it a lot ever since. It was the first time I realised I was on the edge of (perhaps in?) the trap of “she’s just not that strategic”.

Because, y’know, you can deliver huge projects, scale teams/processes/etc, fix systematic issues and still… just be “so great at execution” 🙄

This is not new – there’s an article in HBR from 2009.

“When we asked how they would interpret our data, we heard three explanations. First, several women noted that they tended to set strategy via processes that differed from those used by their male counterparts. This suggests that what may in fact be visionary leadership is not perceived that way because it takes a different path. Second, we heard that women often find it risky to stray away from concrete facts, analyses, and details. And third, many women betrayed negative attitudes toward visionary leadership. Because they thought of themselves as grounded, concrete, and no-nonsense, and had seen many so-called visionary ideas founder in execution, they tended to eye envisioning behaviors with some suspicion”

The article resonates with me. Particularly the distrust of “strategic leadership”. I have definitely seen examples of “strategic leaders” who failed to deliver, often putting the blame on team or circumstances, like the strategy was perfect, the failure was “just” in execution. This is part of why the book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy resonated so much – the concept of the proximate objective, the value of strategy as something that actually effects change.

There’s an interesting post on strategy here, and I can’t claim to mastery in all these things, but some things I keep in mind to try to manage perception of how “strategic” I am:

  • When possible, expose the underlying strategy. E.g. when someone is focused on an individual piece, step back and explain how it fits into the bigger picture.
  • Ask good questions. Use what you learn to reframe discussions to get to a better outcome, more quickly.
  • Document document document. Something I love about distributed work is that it relies more heavily on written communication – so I always have my recipts. In particular, any regular reporting should empasize progress against overall strategy.
  • Be willing to play a long game. It’s easier to sell people on progress than an idea. Make sure to build a narrative as the pieces build on each other.
  • Make time to think (and write).