Culture, HR Management

Talking Strategically: The 7 Things You Must Master to Succeed

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Many in business, and most in talent management, fail to realize that as soon as you open your mouth, it’s immediately obvious to almost all leaders and executives whether you are “strategic” and “know the business.”

If you have ever been a CEO or senior executive (as I have), you already know that strategic individuals use a completely different language than the tactical “do-ers” who populate the lower levels of the organization.

If you are satisfied with being a tactical person, that’s OK, but if you expect to get promoted and to quickly take a leadership position in management, at some point you have to learn how to think and talk strategically.

The 7 “dialects” of strategic business speech

Talking strategically means using language from each of the seven strategic business “dialects.” These dialects or components of strategic speech can be labeled as:

  1. Dollars to show impact;
  2. Corporate goals focused;
  3. Knowing with data;
  4. Building a competitive advantage;
  5. Being forward-looking;
  6. Being customer focused; and,
  7. Emphasizing innovation.

I will highlight the focus of each of these dialects, as well as the key strategic words to use under each of them in order to come across as strategic.

1. The language of business is dollars and numbers

The first and most important major dialect of the strategic language involves the use of the language of business, which is the use of dollars and numbers to demonstrate business impact.

The use of dollars and numbers allows you to come across as strategic in your writings and conversations, even if you don’t actually yet hold a strategic position.

If you’ve ever been in meetings with the corporate executive team or even seen the minutes of these meetings, you would already know that dollars and numbers that show business impact are included in almost every element of their conversations.

For example, a typical recruiter might say that their “recruiting efforts are going well,” where a strategic recruiter would have quantified their results and showed their business impact by instead saying that “recruiting efforts are 17 percent ahead of last year and that improvement has resulted in an increase in corporate revenues of $7.2 million.”

This dialect clearly uses dollars and numbers to quantify the business impact of whatever’s being discussed.

2. The dialect focuses on corporate goals

Strategic individuals are laser focused on meeting corporate goals, and as a result, they will pay little attention to any topic that doesn’t relate directly to those corporate goals. Typical corporate strategic goals usually include:

  • Increasing revenue and profit;
  • Building a competitive advantage;
  • Increasing market share;
  • Shareholder value;
  • Increasing productivity;
  • Satisfying the customer; and,
  • Producing innovative products and services.

There are no HR problems, only strategic problems that occur when strategic goals are not being met as a result of the wrong actions in a functional area like talent management.

So if you want to come across as strategic, you need to directly connect every functional action to how it will increase the firm’s chances of reaching a specific corporate goal. For example, “our corporate revenue goal is down 2 percent because delays in hiring and filling revenue-generating jobs are directly reducing revenues by $1.2 million each month.”

By the way, only amateurs use the term “aligned with strategic goals,” because alignment is almost impossible to measure. The more appropriate phrase is “directly increasing the probability of meeting that goal.” So the strategic language lesson to be learned is that “being strategic” requires you to relate every functional problem and opportunity directly and unambiguously to one or more of your firm’s corporate goals and the problems that most directly impact those goals are given the highest priority.

3. The dialect focuses on using data so you “know”

This third business dialect requires you to know the right answer based on data and evidence.

The language of tactical individuals includes a good number of phrases like I think, I feel, I believe, I assume, all of which clearly allude to the fact that you don’t absolutely know the answer. However, because strategic actions have to be right the first time because they require such large investments and lengthy time to implement, you can’t reveal with your language the fact that you are not a true expert and that there are some things that you are unsure of.

So when you are trying to appear strategic, not only must you use the words “I know,” but you must immediately follow that phrase with numerical data that proves that your solution or answer is both correct and supported by data.

For example, “I know that the 22 percent turnover rate in the sales department that is hurting our corporate sales goal by 4 percent is caused by salespeople quitting as a result of our eliminating corporate vehicles for sales people, and this fact was revealed during our post-exit interviews.” The key lesson to be learned is that strategic people do very little speculating or guessing; instead, they are experts who use data so that they actually know and can defend the best answer or solution.

4. A focus on building a competitive advantage

Being strategic means that you don’t operate in isolation; instead, you continually compare what you do and your results directly to what your firm’s competitors do. Because providing a competitive advantage is so important, any strategic conversation must include how the recommended action will give us a competitive advantage and a measurable lead over other firms.

Using the competitive advantage dialect, you would demonstrate how an action or program would produce superior results, more effective processes, and superior product and service features than those at the competitor firms.

A strategic conversation covering a new idea, product, or solution would also naturally include the likely actions that the competitor firms would take in order to counter our new solution.

An example of a strategic phrase might include: we will be the first to introduce a mobile platform job application process, which is so advanced that it will give us a competitive advantage in recruiting 22 percent more salespeople for at least the next two years.”

5. Being future focused

Most employees are focused almost 100 percent on today’s problems, while a strategic person is forward-looking and tries to forecast or predict upcoming problems and opportunities.

So if you want to come across as strategic in your conversations, supplement your discussion of current problems with forecasts and predictions about upcoming issues. Being forward-looking allows you to identify problems early before they get out of hand, and this early warning allows you to mitigate any potential damage.

Strategic language under the future-focused dialect might include: recruiting in the sales department will negatively impact corporate sales by 4 percent over the next quarter, but if action is not taken, the impact will double to eight percent within six months.” Obviously strategic people also prefer “predictive analytics” over historical “last year’s” metrics.

6. Being customer focused

Being customer-centric is a key component of being strategic because the firm can’t reach its strategic goals without understanding and satisfying its external customers. However, the customer-centric approach is so powerful that executives expect it to be used when you are dealing with internal customers.

This approach requires employees (and especially those in overhead service functions) to treat the managers and employees who they serve the same way as they would treat external customers. So just like in the customer relationship management approach, you would need to use language that shows that you listen to the internal customer, understand internal customer needs, that your service is seamless, and that your internal customers were satisfied with your level of service.

An example of a customer-focused strategic comment would be: “We surveyed our internal customers (hiring managers) to assess their overall satisfaction (96 percent) with the hiring process and we also asked them if they would like to see any improvements in the process. We used that feedback to change and update the interview scheduling process.

The lesson to be learned is that you can’t be viewed as strategic unless you are customer focused and that you regularly use customer service terms and approaches, even with your internal customers.

7. Innovation and self-obsoleting current practices

Someone who thinks and talks strategically is continually focused on self-obsoleting current practices and products who replacing them with innovative ones. Self-obsoleting is superior because there are no surprises; your firm, rather than the competition, is obsoleting its own current practice.

Common phrases in this strategic dialect include: disruptive innovation, getting there first, and building a self-obsolescence process into every new program. Everything becomes obsolete quickly and as a result your language must reflect the need for speed and continuous disruptive innovation in your products but also in your internal corporate processes.

Final thoughts

Understanding and learning the value of talking strategically may seem to some like a minor issue, but executives make quick judgments on individuals based on the words and the language that they use in conversations and in writing.

And as a result of these quick judgments, using too much tactical language or not using strategic language may be hurting your career and losing you executive support for what are probably excellent ideas. To make matters worse, this damage may be occurring without you realizing it.

The analogy I would use is if you were an American visiting France and you refused to use any French words or phrases. No one who you meet would probably take the time to openly criticize you in English, but you would be quickly and silently be labeled as a misfit and no elite French person would want to associate with you.

So I instead recommend an approach in business that makes it difficult for executives to quickly identify your junior standing. In addition to dressing like an executive, you must learn to talk strategically and above your current job level.

Talking, thinking, and acting strategically will leave a lasting impression on executives, in part because so few in talent management have bothered to master this language of strategic business.

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of Talent Management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations / organizations in 30 countries on all 6 continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR and the Financial Times. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring”, Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics” and SHRM called him “One of the industries most respected strategists”. He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked #8 among the top 25 online influencers in Talent Management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.