Another day, another manager telling me that they want a job ‘that is more strategic’, or a CEO asking me to help a manager to ‘be more strategic.’ I have no problem with such desires, but what does being more strategic mean?
If we look at the definition of strategy, we find it means: “A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” Being more strategic must mean more time spent planning things, but doesn’t a manager tend to do that on a regular basis? Is it not the very core of effective management to plan and organise? If planning is the key, then a project manager must be incredibly strategic and yet I doubt that’s what managers mean when they talk about being more strategic.
Does the day-to-day get in the way of innovation?
While the dictionary might guide us towards planning as being a key aspect of strategy, managers tend to think of strategy as being more forward-thinking and broad ranging than operational planning. It could be looking ahead years and involve that wonderful ‘blue sky thinking’. It’s spending far more time thinking and mulling over possibilities and far less doing stuff. Day-to-day operational management involves dealing with crisis, customers, and listening to the concerns of employees. Management involves having eyes in the back of your head, being able to predict the future and dealing with the stress and strain when things go wrong, so a more strategic role must mean far less of all of this.
The need for operational managers
Unfortunately, this utopian strategic role is relatively rare. Most organisations simply can’t support having too many talented people spending a lot of time thinking, being creative, benchmarking and looking for opportunities. Instead, they tend to need far more managers who have this potential but who fundamentally ensure that the organisation runs smoothly and all key stakeholders are engaged and satisfied. Managers who want a strategic role are chasing a small proportion of vacancies and even then they may be disappointed with the presence of different stuff to do.
The desire to move away from a predominantly operational role is quite understandable, but what people mean when they look for a more strategic role is probably one where they have a smaller span of control, with functional leads who they can manage and coach, without the necessity to get too involved in day-to-day activities. This is not necessarily more strategic, just more senior and more accountable.
What does ‘strategic’ really mean?
So what of the CEO’s desire to see their managers act more strategically? It probably means they want to see them spend less time fire fighting and more time preventing the fires, developing a talented team who will take a lot of pressure off all the senior managers and for the CEO to have to do less ‘stuff’. Next time you get a hankering for a more strategic role or are told you should be more strategic, push back on the word and be 100% sure everyone involved knows what they really mean by that phrase.
Michael Coates spent 10 years teaching in business schools before taking responsibility for HR and organisational development at a global corporation, covering Europe, Middle East and Africa. Since 2007, Michael has run Protostar Leadership Development Ltd., training and coaching managers for a number of blue chip companies. He is the author of Psychology and Organisations and is an active member of the Association for Coaching.