You’ve probably heard the many sayings that aim to clarify the difference between strategy and tactics. I remember the sayings I learned in business school: “Strategy is doing the right things while tactics are doing things right,” or, “Strategy is planning the war; tactics are planning the battle.” In general, strategic thinking often refers to the long-term vision for a company or industry, or the “what” and the “why” something should be done. Tactical thinking revolves around “how” these visions will be realized.
In the workplace, we think about people as being either strategic thinkers or tacticians (leaders versus managers). We are led to believe that the higher up the ladder people move in their careers, the more of a strategic thinker they become. After all, they must be taking all of the knowledge they have gained in their company and in their industry and using that knowledge to churn out strategies for improving the businesses they work for, right? Sometimes—and sometimes not. Many people are so focused on the tactical issues that keep their businesses running on a day-to-day basis (and rightly so!) that they rarely have the opportunity to step back and ponder if their companies or departments are doing the right things. They are working hard, but they are not necessarily working smart.
Both men and women can fall into the trap of tactical management, but it is women who seem more likely to be judged as less-effective leaders due to their detail-oriented work style. Some have the tendency to become task-oriented doers who can be counted on to deliver in execution roles instead of being seen as strategic thinkers who have an empowering style that is often associated with organizational leadership.
So, what can we do to avoid this trap and set ourselves up for success in leadership roles?
Here are some suggestions based on my experience working with many successful women leaders:
- Ask to be part of strategy sessions, even if you are not an expert in the subject matter at first. This exposure to new ideas allows you to get out of simply doing tasks you are familiar with (and are likely good at!).
- Research internal and external market forces that affect your company and your industry. Be ready to discuss these issues with executives in passing or at meetings when the opportunity arises. This will show your ability to see the big picture and differentiate you from others who just have tactical, day-to-day concerns to discuss.
- Focus mainly on work that affects the bottom line. By prioritizing doing essential work first, you can free yourself up to think outside the box and come up with ways to improve the business. This comes back to working smarter, not harder, and focusing on what matters to your bosses. Use data to back up your ideas.
In addition, companies can help women get into career paths where they can learn strategic thinking skills. Of the many companies I have worked for, the ones that seem to be the most successful at developing and retaining women leaders do the following:
- Empower people (not just women) at all levels to make decisions and to have a certain amount of control over their work. This allows people to practice strategic thinking and tie actions to outcomes. I’ve seen this work well in matrixed environments where collective intelligence is spread between employees working in various departments and who have varying levels of responsibility.
- Give employees access to information and data whenever possible. Knowledge is power, right? To make strategic decisions, you need to understand the bigger picture. Transparency is the key to being able to find opportunities for growth and improvement.
- Recognize the importance of mentoring. This, of course, allows women to be paired up with successful, knowledgeable leaders who can pass along their ideas about how value is created and where to focus their efforts. This should also include learning the more technical side of a business from mentors who may be younger than you; 360-degree learning at its best!
- Allow (and support) flexible work schedules. So many highly qualified, strategic-thinking women end up in more routine, tactical positions simply due to the fact that their competing family obligations prevent them from being seen as leaders. This comes back around to the “work smarter, not harder” mentality that the best companies have integrated into their corporate culture, and (surprise!) they are rewarded with some of the best women leaders in the workforce.
The last piece is this: Do something you enjoy doing. When you can align what you are passionate about with doing work that has the greatest impact on your company, you can’t help but become more of a strategic thinker who will eventually be able to bring others along with you.
Mary Grossman-Scudder, MBA, is a lead senior financial analyst at the Sharp Metropolitan Medical Campus. Her experience spans several industries and includes business consulting and project management.