How to Become a Strategic Thinker and Move Into Leadership

Even in a large company, there are typically fewer positions than there are team members who are eager to run a business or department with P&L responsibility. I believe the most important criterion for moving into these roles is the ability to think strategically. Yet strategic thinking isn’t a skill that’s traditionally taught in universities or management training programs.

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Many employees—and even some executives—don’t understand the difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is how to leverage a company’s core competencies to achieve its objectives and create sustainable competitive advantage. Tactics describe the specific actions that will be taken along the way.

Now, knowing your company and its competitors’ strategies is great, but it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate strategic-thinking capability. So, once you have gained valuable knowledge by completing the steps just mentioned, thoughtfully consider the following questions. The answers will lead you to demonstrate a strong strategic-thinking capability.

As you communicate your thoughts and ideas to your company’s management team, they are likely to recognize you as a strategic thinker with high potential for more senior roles in the organization. And that is the best way to land that “P&L” job.


How to Become a Strategic Thinker and Move Into Leadership

A retired president of a Fortune 100 company provides effective advice

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First published July 3, 2023, by

Get acquainted with your company’s distributors. They are out in the field, talking with your customers. They are likely to hear opinions about your competitors’ products and services—specifically about features your competitors offer that your company does not. Ask them what aspects of your business offerings they would like to see expanded or modified.

The first step is to understand your own company’s strategies. One easy way to do that is to read your company’s annual report and most recent strategic plan. The annual report typically touches only generally on the corporate mission and strategies. The strategic plan is more likely to contain an in-depth analysis of the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

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Also, if your company has publicly traded stock, read the periodic reports of the analysts who follow that stock. There you can learn a lot more about the external view of your company’s risks and opportunities and how it fares against the competition.

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If you have done your homework, asking yourself these questions and then answering them should reveal many previously untapped ideas that will help your company create a sustainable competitive advantage. A thoughtful exercise like this is highly strategic. The answers you come up with could lead to new and expanded strategies for your company.

The third step in becoming a strategic thinker is getting your superiors to notice your newfound knowledge and your strategic-thinking capabilities, which may give you a leg up in landing a role with the responsibility of running a P&L.

Throughout my career, I mentored many employees at all levels in the organization. Over time, more than 10 of them ultimately became CEOs or presidents of their organizations. A key factor in their success was developing a capability for strategic thinking.

The second step in becoming a strategic thinker is to understand the competition. The easiest way to do this is to review competing companies’ websites. Next, follow the same steps you used to research your company to research key competitors. Read as much publicly available material as you can. Try to obtain their strategic plans for the future.

There are three steps involved in developing strategic thinking.

Also, mystery-shop the competition. If you really want to take your due diligence up a notch, and your business is in retail product sales, purchase some of the competitors’ products and compare them against comparable products your company sells. For large or expensive products like automobiles or appliances, at least come to understand your company’s product differentiation by reading product manuals, marketing pieces, and press releases. If they seem superior to your company’s offerings, determine what the competition is doing to gain that edge.

From a competitive employment perspective, how do our compensation and benefits compare to those of our key competitors? To what extent do we need to step up our own compensation and benefit packages to better compete for top talent?

Ask any executive what he or she considers the most important skills for team members who aspire to leadership roles, and you will get answers ranging from clear communication to collaboration to adaptability.

The word strategy was originally a war term used to determine how a combatant would defeat the enemy. In general, strategy as it relates to business is how to beat the competition in a way that achieves sustainable competitive advantage.

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