In a recent conversation with one of my executive coaching clients, a global leader at a high-growth marketing and technology company, the age-old quandary about how and where to strengthen and balance strategic and executional leadership abilities took center stage.
By all accounts, this leader is regarded as an exemplary "executional" performer, defined by unwavering commitment, an outcomes-oriented mindset, and the widespread respect of peers. My client is looked upon as the quintessential "get things done" champion, which is a highly valued quality given the breakneck speed at which the company operates. However, even in the midst of it all, her growth journey is currently being reassessed as the company expands, necessitating a shift in her focus to become "more strategic" to best lead her functional areas as the organization propels forward.
I've encountered this narrative time and again throughout my career. The call to be "more strategic" has often been portrayed as the ultimate destination, an entry ticket to the C-suite. Yet, in today's fast-paced work environment, particularly in high-growth companies, strategic leadership might seem like a luxury, a diversion, or a less effective use of time compared to the constant and immediate executional demands that often originate from the top.
The Case to Rethink and Reframe
I believe this is a golden opportunity for high-growth company CEOs and exec team members.
For many of you, the natural inclination to emphasize one aspect of your leadership approach -- whether on account of your role, your inherent abilities and personal interests or the influence of a get-it-done workplace culture -- often obstructs the development of a well-rounded leadership toolkit. But, without a clear understanding of, and expectations for, embracing both the top-down and bottoms-up ends of the leadership spectrum (a frequent blind spot for growing companies), we hinder the cultivation of vital organizational capabilities which are often critical to company success.
In my client's particular case, 360-degree interviews with peers, direct reports, and the CEO helped illuminate this point. I asked each of them to expound on both dimensions of my client’s strengths and weaknesses around her strategic and executional leadership. The feedback I received reflected a lack of organizational clarity on the topic, along with personal bias towards one end of the continuum or another and a dearth of real-life examples.
Define the Strategic to-Executional Leadership Continuum
At its core, strategic leadership blends three elements: strategic thinking (i.e. the capacity to understand cause and effect, and consider a broad array of variables, while navigating complexity and ambiguity), acting strategically (i.e. through information sharing, critical inquiry, convergent and divergent discussion , feedback, and collective decision-making), and operating strategically (i.e. clearly defining what you want to achieve and why through shared purpose, vision, values, growth objectives, and nurturing healthy organizational culture).
For most individuals, strategic leadership isn't an innate trait, but is a skill that can be nurtured over time through the right mindset, tools, and support. Contrary to what some believe in the C-suite, strategic leadership isn't limited to those seated around the boardroom or executive table. Some of the most strategic employees I've encountered recognize the opportunities to make a significant and measurable impact, regardless of their hierarchical level, role, or experience. In fast-growing companies, this is often the lifeblood of the culture, starting from the customer and working inward. You need those people to succeed!
Executional leadership is the art of translating strategy into actionable steps that yield tangible results. Leaders with a penchant for execution are adept at driving implementation and ensuring ideas are operationalized and turned into practice. They are goal-oriented and goal-motivated, consistently delivering on their promises. Furthermore, execution-minded leaders -- if they cultivate a culture of continuous improvement or experimentation -- are often more adaptable and responsive to change or evolving circumstances. They pivot swiftly, make real-time adjustments to stay on course, and instill accountability and ownership within their respective teams.
Nurture the Right Balance
The most effective leaders are those who strike a harmonious balance between strategic thinking and executional capability. Leaders who lean toward strategic mindedness exclusively may lack the ability to execute, and risk leaving plans unfulfilled and opportunities unrealized. Conversely, leaders who lean towards being very execution-minded may often lack strategic focus, direction, and can, all too often, overlook existential threats or long-term opportunities.
So … how can you nurture both your strategic AND executional leadership approaches within your company?
Consider the following:
On the Strategy side …
1. Foster a Culture of Possibility: While diligence and dedication are crucial, leaders who view challenges or setbacks as opportunities for growth inspire a culture of continuous development, both for themselves and for their teams.
2. Seek Curiosity and Open-Mindedness in Hiring: Curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, and a willingness to explore diverse perspectives are indispensable. Encourage diverse viewpoints, engage in discussions, and provide feedback to help sharpen minds and stimulate divergent thinking.
3. Champion Long-Term Thinking (while balancing short-term focus): Allocate time for leaders to step back from daily operations and invest in understanding market trends, customer needs, and emerging opportunities.
4. Embrace Analytical Thinking and Data-Driven Decision-Making: Strategic thinking isn't solely based on intuition; it also entails data-driven choices. Assist leaders in developing analytical skills, recognizing patterns, assessing risk, and making informed decisions.
5. Encourage Risk-Taking and Innovation: Leaders should foster a culture of experimentation and risk-taking within their own teams. Acknowledge and reward initiatives that challenge the status quo and yield innovative solutions.
6. Cultivate Collaboration and Teamwork: Strategic thinking thrives on collaboration. Model collaborative behaviors to break down silos that hinder information and idea flow. Diverse minds working together exponentially increase the team's collective intelligence and lead to more innovative approaches.
7. Provide Mentorship and Development Opportunities: Becoming a strategic thinker doesn't happen overnight. Encourage senior leaders to mentor emerging leaders on their journeys to becoming more strategic thinkers.
8. Lead by Example: Demonstrate the attributes of a strategic thinker in your own actions and your own decision-making processes. Share personal stories of how strategic thinking has helped you overcome challenges and achieve success.
On the Executional side …
9. Align Strategy and Execution: Ensure that any strategic vision translates into actionable plans, with every action ultimately being both measurable and delivering against the umbrella strategy.
10. Empower and Delegate: Execution-minded leaders empower their team members to take ownership of their tasks and delegate authority effectively to implement the vision.
11. Continuously Assess and Adapt: Regularly evaluate the effectiveness of both strategy-predicated and execution-predicated efforts. Be willing to adapt and adjust as needed.
12. Cultivate a Learning Culture: Encourage a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Celebrate successes, and learn from failures, to enhance both strategic and executional capabilities.
In the dynamic and fiercely competitive world of business, leaders must embody both strategic-mindedness and executional prowess. By striking the right balance between these two points along the continuum of leadership, down and across your company, you will increase the full capability of your people to thrive in an ever-changing landscape….one that you may actually be disrupting or creating.