Culture, Leadership

A Sad Workplace Truth: People Don’t Just Become More Strategic

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As I am preparing for a session next week with an executive team on Leading Transformation, I got thinking about what blocks organizations from getting done what they intend.

What blocks their business growth? What keeps them from executing decisively on new things?

Very often it’s a realization that the people you have sitting around the table are not the ones you need to take the business where it needs to go.

The sad truth about “becoming” strategic

What I hear frequently is executives concerned about particular individuals, saying, “I need them to be more strategic.”

Reality check: I have never seen anyone become more strategic.

OK, there are a few closet-strategic people out there who do not realize that their job is to be strategic. They might be junior, or inexperienced, but when they are told “you should be more strategic,” it gives them the imagination and permission to do so.

They get a boost of confidence and they transform – pretty quickly. So, it is definitely worth giving people a chance to develop.

But being more strategic is not something that is learned over time. My experience is that people either have the strategic gene or they don’t.

If you have been wishing someone on your team would become more strategic, and have been asking, coaching and waiting for more than a year (or years) — just recognize (and you probably already know this in your heart) — this person is not going to become strategic.

Where leaders get stuck

This is the uncomfortable part — this is a great person. A hard worker, loyal employee, gets-things-done-kind-of-guy-or-gal — but they are just not thinking and working strategically enough.

They may have found themselves in a new position in the organization — one that has evolved as the organization has grown. A position, in which you now need someone to lead and do new stuff at a different level or scale, or to just do dramatically different, new stuff.

You don’t need someone in the job who just gets things done.

In fact, that is part of the problem. They are so busy getting old and current things done that they spend no time on thinking about whether or not they should still be doing this.

Some people just can’t let go of running the machinery, to decide if they could improve or reinvent the machinery, or if different machinery entirely is what is needed.

Conceiving and leading change

You need someone in the role who will help you with the new thinking. Someone who will personally conceive of and lead the change, then motivate and develop the people in their own organization to move the business forward.

If you stick with the non-strategic person, you will block growth. The business can’t grow because you need do all the strategic thinking and inventing, not just at your level, but at the level below, too.

Then you need to spend time defining and describing to this non-strategic person who is not stepping up enough, why and how to construct and execute specifically what is needed for the new world.

You become a bottleneck.

But if you face up to the fact that you need different (strategic) people on your team, and get the right people in the strategic roles, who are naturally capable and motivated to drive change, suddenly you are able to scale.

Because you then have a team of people below you who can think, decide and drive change. They will be pulling the organization up and forward without using so much of your own time.

You get to step up even more to lead strategic growth because your team is pulling their weight.

I have restructured every management team I have ever led. Every team always ended up saying, “this was the best team I have ever been on.” We always drove change. We always executed. Each person strategically led their area with competence and motivation.

This is what I learned:

Grow the business or keep jobs?

It sounds harsh, but as an executive you need to ask yourself, is my desired outcome to grow the business? Or, is my desired outcome to avoid discomfort and conflict and keep everyone employed?

Get really clear on this in your own mind: If your desired outcome is to grow the business, your job is to get a team of people who are able to do the work you need, not to make due with the people you have.

But that sounds harsh, right? These people have done nothing wrong, they have been good employees and friends, and I don’t want to fire them for work that is good, but not good enough.

You also may be thinking: isn’t it part of my job to take care of my people?

Your choices and options

  • Grow the business: If your desired outcome is to grow the business, then you need to get the right people in the right jobs and eliminate the people who are not stepping up.
  • Keep jobs: If your desired outcome is to help people keep their jobs, you have two choices.
    1. Move them to different, lower or sideways jobs, and free up strategic jobs to be filled by strategic people.
    2. If you can’t or won’t do this, then accept the fact that your organization will not drive strategic change, and find a business model you can execute with the team you have.

Key thought: Don’t waste a lot of time and energy signing your business up for strategic growth, then not moving the wrong people out and wondering why you are not able to execute more strategically.

In my next post, I’ll give you some more ideas for how to proceed to build an organization ready for strategic growth. But for now, make a honest assessment:

  • What roles do I need to drive the transformation or growth that the business requires?
  • Do I have all the right roles defined?
  • Do I have the right people in them?

A lesson from the dogs

Earlier this year I had an experience which put this concept of “build the right, capable, team” into a visible and physically palpable metaphor. I went dogsledding.

At the beginning of the day there were 17 sled-dog teams lined up on the sides of the path, and the dogs were mostly lying and lounging in the snow. But the dogs know their job and they love it.

When they perceived that the 30-minute briefing was ending, without any cue from “management” they jumped up, and pointed forward. They were loaded springs.

They had such motivation and energy you could see and feel it.

All the ropes were tight.

They were ready, willing, and anxious to GO.

I thought: that’s the team you want in business. Every person pulling their weight in the same direction — ready, willing, and anxious to GO.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .
  • Cynthia

    I suspect you are right: strategic thinking is a gene. I am wondering if the same is true for ” business acumen.” Some people seem to have it, and some will never get it.

  • http://twitter.com/GoSnapHop SnapHop

    I think it’s really difficult (impossible, honestly) for employees to work strategically if they don’t have a good understanding of what the company’s strategy is. I think companies without strategy are a bigger (and more common) problem than people without a strategic gene.

  • Better Leader

    I believe that pigeon holding people by making claims that they “don’t have the gene” is more indicative of a management team and style that is disconnected from problems within an organization or is compensating for their own failure of leadership. It is absolutely true that some people are not good fits for a role or organization and that they should be moved/eliminated. Over years of consulting and private investing, my experience has shown that the most frequent barrier to growth is at the top of the food chain. Rarely have I seen problems with lower or mid tier employees failing to come up appropriately through an organization with the proper leadership.

  • Alejandro

    Laughable premise. For an easy way to debunk this I point to military history. One of the cradles if not the origin of “strategic thinking”.

    Obviously, leadership is constantly cultivated in the military, to include strategic thinking.

    Training is the answer.

  • Dianne M. Kipp, PCC, CTT

    I would have to disagree, as an executive coach, I have worked with many leaders moving into new roles requiring strategic thinking skill, and have been able to support their growth into the ability. Number one factor is providing time to think on a regular basis by scheduling time to do so. With the support of an expert coach, strategic thinking and executive presence are both attainable attributes.