What is does it mean to be strategic? People are happy to make comments such as, “We need to think more strategically,” or “She’s a good manager, but she’s not very strategic.” But what does that mean? Having worked in the strategy arena for 15 years, and worked with dozens of clients since I launched my consulting business, I have identified seven behaviours and habits which help to identify whether a business leader is strategic or not.In short, highly strategic leaders:

  1. Start with an external perspective. Many executives focus on internal operations and internal issues. Strategic leaders, however, start with their customers, identify and anticipate their needs, and seek to understand how they can create a more meaningful and stronger business relationship with them.
  2. Look beyond the next 12 months. It’s easy to have 100% of your focus on this year’s – and even this quarter’s – results. But if you’re always focused on the short term you may struggle to thrive in the long term. One of my CEO clients has an 80/15/5 rule. He aims to focus 80% of his time on delivering the current year’s results, 15% of his time on developing new profit streams for delivery over the next 1-2 years, and 5% of his time on building platforms for growth beyond the next 2-3 years.
  3. Question everything. Strategic leaders don’t follow the herd; they set their own direction. This means that they take nothing for granted and objectively challenge prevailing wisdoms. They are skilful analytical thinkers, experts in framing issues and drivers of innovation. James Dyson’s approach to vacuum cleaners and hand dryers, for instance, is an example of a strategic leader relentlessly questioning everything.
  4. Exploit and build their company’s strengths and advantages. Although they may start with an external view, strategic leaders are clear about what drives their company’s performance and the assets and capabilities that underpin its success. When Howard Schultz returned to lead Starbucks a few years ago, he realised that the company’s success was based on its expertise in coffee, its ethically responsible sourcing policies, its ability to generate innovative new offers, and its operational effectiveness across a large store chain. His focus on these elements has helped the company to return to growth.
  5. Drive alignment. Strategic leaders don’t tell; they develop bottom-up support and engagement. When I worked for Boots the Chemists, the CEO, Richard Baker, was an expert at communicating a vision and strategy throughout the business. Whatever you wanted to discuss with him, he would bring the conversation back to the retail chain’s five strategic priorities. All the initiatives and programmes were also focused on these five objectives, generating tremendous alignment across the company.
  6. Focus on results. Strategic leaders are relentless in holding their people to account and following through. Where there are real issues they look for cause rather than blame, but they will not allow weak and mediocre managers to drag down the performance of their stronger colleagues.
  7. Are willing to take a ‘sharp right’. Over time markets change so much that it’s not enough to be better at what you do, but to do something differently. Alternatively, you might find that the leading competitors in your market are so well positioned that it’s better to avoid competing head-on with them and, instead, trying different, more disruptive approaches. Intel’s shift from memory chips to microprocessors, Whitbread’s disposal of its brewing business in favour of the development of its Costa Coffee and Premier Inn chains, Ryanair’s move from a full-service airline to a low-fare flyer and IBM’s transformation from a hardware supplier to a consultancy-led business, are all examples of leadership teams that have been willing and able to take a ‘sharp right’.

Which of these seven habits do you exhibit, and which do you need to develop if you are to become a true strategic leader?

© Stuart Cross 2013. All rights reserved.