by Clive Keyte

Are you a strategic thinker? Welcome to the third and final instalment of our mini-series on Strategic Thinking, so far we have looked at Innovation and the Blue Ocean Strategy. Today we’re going to put strategic theories and models to one side for a moment and ask a more fundamental question that all managers and business leaders need to face.

Are you a strategic thinker?

The fact is until we can learn to think strategically and to adopt that strategic mindset, it is almost impossible to get the most from any academic model, strategy management software package or internal strategy system.

But the good news is that it is possible to learn to become a strategic thinker and to develop the attributes that great strategies naturally possess. With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to the 5 attributes of a strategic thinker.

The signs that you’re a strategic thinker

Great leaders will possess all of these traits to a certain degree, and be willing to keep developing them:

1. You’re naturally reflective

Many managers and entrepreneurs pride themselves on being dynamic do-ers. But strategic thinkers enjoy meaningful, sustainable success by applying deep critical thinking skills and by digging further into analytical data. Rather than make a decision based on headline figures, these individuals will drill down to supporting data – asking probing and often ‘difficult’ questions the entire time to get to the crux of a problem or an opportunity. Crucially, they are also resistant to the need to be ‘seen to act’ and will wait until they have formulated the right plan in their mind before communicating it to their organisation. By allowing time to reflect and to gather information – rather than simply knee-jerk into a course of action – they gather the knowledge and confidence needed to make long-term decisions that matter. (It’s worth noting that comfort with data is a core business skill that probably explains why so many CEOs have a financial background. One practical development action here is to improve your own familiarity and confidence with financial reports, ratios and analysis.)

2. You work at being a great leader

Great strategic thinkers recognise that they need to continually work at their leadership, and take steps to develop their skills and abilities. They keep learning, developing and looking for opportunities to evolve – rather than claiming to know it all. In this way, they are often prepared to put their egos aside and to commit to being lifelong learners. Equally, by being a great leader, they will know to trust their own functional experts, rather than seeking to become ‘expert’ in everything themselves, and really listen to what people across their organisation say. This gives them true insights that help to make better decisions. At the same time, it encourages loyalty and respect from their own workforce.

3. You encourage other strategic thinkers

A great leader will always look for ways to develop other great strategic thinkers within their business. This commitment to talent development means that they naturally harness real diversity – bringing different experiences, views, perspectives and backgrounds into the mix. This greatly enhances the organisation’s knowledge and experience base, and its ability to think in a smart and strategic way. Great leaders also put in place processes and structures which encourage people to contribute, to innovate, to think and to be active in shaping the organisation from the ground up – harnessing their energy, creativity, ideas and talent to build a true body of internal knowledge that helps guide the organisation in the right direction.

4. You ask ‘what if?’

The ability to conceptualise and to challenge established ways of doing things is key to becoming a better strategist. This approach to creative thinking could involve practical steps such as looking at what innovative businesses are doing in other industries and seeing whether similar game-changing approaches could be applied within your own business to transform it and to add value to customers. Great leaders aren’t afraid to think outside the box or to ask ‘silly’ questions which may seem to stretch boundaries of what can or can’t be done.

5. You are open to new ideas

Strategic thinkers are open to change, to innovation and to their own need to learn. They recognise that there will always be new ideas and developments that can change the game, and they are willing to find out new things. This curiosity is a lifelong skill that can be nurtured by reading, speaking to others, attending events and learning about what is happening in the world – beyond your immediate business and its market.

The ability to think strategically is one that tends to mark out great leaders and successful business people – whatever their field or industry. But all of these traits can be developed and improved with time and focus. Practice the habits that demonstrate these traits. Challenge yourself to do things differently. Reflect and challenge yourself and measure your impact. Great strategic thinkers are made as well as born – so with time and application, you will enable yourself to join their ranks, and to become far more confident at your ability to drive your business forwards.

Find out more

We recommend the HBR Guide to Strategic Thinking.  Intrafocus helps organisations of all sizes and kinds to develop their business strategy. Whether you are an e-commerce start-up, a non-profit or a large blue-chip organisation, we can help you to get more from your strategy.  Please contact us to find out more and to discuss your individual needs.