4 ways to lift strategic thinking capability

Life at the top can be lonely for any leader. It often feels like you’re the only one who can see or considers the whole picture.

This frustration has raised its head in leadership coaching sessions recently and the conversations often start with:

Why am I the only one who…?

They only think about their own area

They’re just not big picture or strategic enough

Sound familiar?

Here’s why Leadership Deafness (lack of organisational awareness or understanding) happens:

Causes of Leadership Deafness

  • Flawed Relevance Filters

Leadership Deafness happens when executive leaders either can’t or don’t want to hear information that is outside their direct span of control or doesn’t impact their area of responsibility.

If the information doesn’t immediately spark their interest, they simply tune out. Executives are busy people who develop the ability to filter out anything they judge to be irrelevant to them or their area.

At a recent executive meeting, CEO Helen announced a restructure of corporate services functions. Whilst the Heads of Finance, IT and HR were highly attentive, Helen was shocked to see Sam (Head of Sales & Marketing) open his laptop to answer emails.

After the meeting Helen asked Sam why he’d tuned out. His answer was simple – ‘It doesn’t affect me or my team’. Without realising the impact this change would indeed have on his team; Sam had dismissed it as irrelevant.

  • Missing Key Executive Leadership Responsibility

When recruiting for executive leadership positions, the focus is necessarily on responsibility for leading a specific area. Position descriptions and interviews are geared to find the best candidate with the right skills, knowledge and experience to lead that area of the business.

What’s missing is a specific, clearly articulated ‘whole of business’ leadership responsibility. If you’re going to have a seat at the executive table, you will be expected to apply a ‘whole of business’ lens to risk, opportunity and decision making.

The often cited ‘Ability to see the big picture and think strategically’ is too vague, leading to the assumption that the executive only needs to apply strategic thinking to their own area.

  • ‘Not My Job’ Thinking

I’m often surprised when senior executives express the belief that it’s the CEO/GM/Secretary/Commissioner’s job to think ‘whole of organisation’. After all, that’s why they’re in the top job, isn’t it?

My response is usually, “Yes and No’.

Yes, the most senior leader is responsible for thinking about the whole,  but… it is not their responsibility alone. Leaving this responsibility to one person creates massive organisational risk and is seriously flawed. Even the most competent, experienced and astute CEO will have knowledge gaps, blind spots and unconscious biases.

Diversity of thought, perspective and experience are critical elements of high performing executive teams.

Here’s how to expand and lift ‘whole of organisation’ strategic thinking capability.

Simple Strategies to help your people ‘get it’.

Identify the Strategic Thinking Gap and Build a Bridge

Identify specifically what it is that your leadership team is missing or not understanding. Explain what ‘whole of organisation’ thinking means; why it’s important and what it looks and sounds like. Use examples to illustrate how vested interest, siloed thinking limits organisational effectiveness and performance.

Add ‘Whole of Organisation Thinking' to each executive’s responsibilities, KPIs and professional development plans.

Implement Role Swap Thinking at Executive Meetings

Role Swap Thinking is simply asking your Executives to view scenarios, situations and problems from alternative perspectives. This might sound like, “If you were the CEO, what else would you consider?”

It’s important to set these conversations up by signaling that, “For this discussion, I’d like you to swap your vested interest lens for a ‘whole of organisation’ perspective.”

Foster Questioning Over Telling

“It doesn’t matter how many times I tell them; they still don’t get it!”

Although well meaning, many senior leaders fall into the trap of providing information or direction in statements. Spoon feeding by telling doesn’t encourage your executive team to think for themselves. 

Posing carefully considered questions, will help your executives think beyond their immediate, autopilot response. Here’s an example:

Swap “You need to think about reputational risk.”  for “If this were to hit the headlines and go viral, what would that mean for us and how would we handle it?”

To fast track their development, ask ‘What else…?’ 3 – 5 times to break through the boundary conditions of their thinking.

Use Metaphors, Analogies, Stories and Pictures

Each of your executives will have a different learning style. This is where Metaphors, Analogies, Stories and Pictures come in. As humans we love stories and pictures because they help us neurologically ‘join the dots’.

Some of the biggest AHA realisations I’ve seen land in executive meetings or workshops are where the speaker (realising they’ve lost their audience), changes tack and introduces a metaphor, analogy or story. Or when they jump up to the whiteboard and start drawing a series of lines and circles as they speak.

Whilst seemingly unrelated to the topic, these devices have the power to link unrelated ideas in our subconscious minds in a way that our conscious minds struggle to comprehend.

Bonus points for making these devices widely relatable and memorable. (Yes, even you can draw a stick figure on a whiteboard!).

And, it’s not just the story you tell, or picture you draw. It’s how  you tell or draw it that enables you to ‘land’ your point.

Key Take Away

The only meaning of communication is the response it gets

Ultimately, communication effectiveness is measured by the response it elicits. If your people aren't getting 'it' when it comes to thinking strategically, change your approach.

By implementing these strategies, leaders can foster a culture of understanding, strategic thinking, and collective responsibility. Uniting your team to collectively think and act for the greater good will significantly improve organisational effectiveness and performance.

And, if your Board and Executive need to plan to meet the challenges of massive industry or sector change (eg the impact of Artificial Intelligence), a Strategic Planning Workshop for BIG Change will set you up for success.

Carpe diem

Caroline Cameron

Need to lift your Leadership team's strategic thinking capability? 

Let's see how I can help you

About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

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