Many professionals face a unique challenge when reaching a certain height in their careers: the transition from technical expert to strategic leader.
Whether they made their name in IT, marketing, finance, or any other business area, many leaders struggle to broaden their lens beyond their area of expertise. They resist embracing a strategic mindset.
Some reject strategic work, having seen too many strategic plans that didn't materialize exactly as they were envisioned. Others would rather be doing "useful" work, like focusing on today's problems, not those of a hypothetical future.
While it's true that most strategic plans don't turn out exactly as written, and while day-to-day problem-solving can feel more immediately gratifying, there is immense value in having a strategic mindset -- and failing to embrace it can have repercussions.
When leaders can't transition from technical expert to strategic leader, they often stay narrowly focused on their one area of expertise. They get in the weeds with technical details that leave others feeling lost. These leaders tend to steer every business discussion to their area, even when the matter at hand affects the company as a whole. They lack big-picture perspective and focus on reactive problem solving and putting out fires. They are less likely to make an impact in their roles, and can experience career stagnation.
Strategic leaders, on the other hand, have a broad, forward-thinking perspective. They think long-term, identifying possibilities and opportunities the company can put into action. They help steer day-to-day decisions in the right direction.
I've coached many leaders who have been at this career crossroads. Here are some of the tools and techniques that have helped cultivate their strategic mindsets.
Look ahead to future possibilities
Your thinking will need to shift to include future goals in addition to present-day challenges. Before making decisions, ask yourself, how will what we're doing now position us well for the future? What is the organization doing today to stay relevant five years from now? Focus your observations from a short-term and long-term perspective.
Think big picture
It can be difficult to switch gears from narrow technical expert to broad-thinking strategic leader. Start by connecting your work to the broader company strategy. "How does this align with our strategy and key priorities? How will this decision impact other departments? Can I contribute to that effort somehow?" Assess situations from multiple angles and from the standpoint of key priorities for the company, division, and business unit.
Pay attention to emerging trends
Study emerging trends inside and outside your field and tap into future-oriented resources such as think tanks and internal groups that focus on market research and industry trends. Listen to thought-provoking speakers live or online. Meet with visionary leaders to discuss how events and trends may impact your organization's strategy.
Translate possibilities into breakthrough strategies
Do a competitive analysis of your organization's products or services or position in the marketplace, and present it to the people involved. Solicit their input, listen to their perspectives and priorities, and fold them into your vision. Consider the financial impact to the entire organization. Develop a plan and a strong message to share with individuals who are impacted by your ideas.
Make time for strategic thinking
Technical experts often have a hard time letting go of the work they're passionate about. They can easily fill their days with tasks they could be delegating, often falling into the trap of micromanaging. But higher-level, strategic thinking requires practice, focus, and time. Block out white space on your calendar exclusively for the task of high-level thinking. Make it a habit until it becomes a part of your regular working rhythm.
Technical experts who are transitioning to strategic leaders don't have to abandon the work that brought them to this point in their careers. They can bring that same energy, passion, and enthusiasm to cultivating a strategic mindset and enjoy the best of both worlds.