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Frances Wade | Why strategic thinkers leave leaders stranded

Published:Sunday | September 25, 2016 | 9:11 AM

In today's turbulent financial and economic environment, there's no doubt that companies need strategic thinkers at all levels. However, most do little to develop employees who have this skill, leaving it to chance. What should your firm do differently to prepare itself to face real challenges that possibly threaten its very existence?

Most Jamaican companies are led by strong personalities who are, on average, quicker in mind and speech than their colleagues. The corporate model is summarised as "follow the gifted leader".

This tactic works ... for a while.

Perhaps, unlike others, your company is interested in sustainable growth, handing over a healthy, thriving concern to the next generation. If so, it's likely to be led by a young employee who shows the right potential for strategic thinking.

Unfortunately, your company may not realise such skills are missing until it's too late. By the time the recession hits, competitors enter or new technology disrupts, the game is over. In preceding years, you failed to take the small steps needed to develop talent in strategic thinking.

I find it challenging to convince leaders a gap is developing. They can't empathise, because they came to prominence at a time when they stood out by leading from the front in a decisive manner.

In fact, they make things worse. Now, by hogging all the attention, they crowd out others who show potential. Consequently, some leave, others adapt, but the result is the same. When no one is left to challenge your strategic thinking, all you have left is one opportunity after another to prove that you are 'right'. Every. Single. Time.

When you win each argument and outsmart others in each power struggle, you suppress talents you don't have, or even recognise. You emerge as the champion strategist, but the organisation loses.

I have met only a few local executives who actively restrain their tendencies to be the alpha dog. They are sensitive to the excesses of the power they yield, admitting that personal winning can lead to corporate losing. Instead, they focus their efforts on uncovering talent at all levels, nurturing it along. According to the article '10 Principles of Strategic Leadership' published in the journal "strategy+business", here are the clues they look for to discover the next generation of strategic leaders:

- They tend to be rare and also female. Ten per cent of employees with these skills are women, while only seven per cent are men;

- They tend to be easier to spot when they are older than 45;

- They have developed the skill of challenging without being bitter or cynical; and

- They can see the small and big picture at the same time, showing a willingness to change course whenever needed.

Unfortunately, these strategic leaders often create trouble for managers who are threatened by their skills. But don't trust my experience. Gather a number of high potentials of all ages from across your company and ask them: Are you encouraged to demonstrate strategic leadership skills?

Once you have them talking openly, go several steps further. The article recommends the following:

1. Conduct 'Failure Fests'

These are cross-organisational meetings to discuss decisions that led to poor outcomes. Usually, these episodes are never talked about openly, assuring their repetition.

Addressing these questions makes it much easier to pool theories into a coherent consensus. This inoculates employees from simply repeating the same errors.

Honda and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation both use this approach to great effect.

2. Create Projects with Other Strategic Leaders

Pick out regular opportunities for these high potentials to support each other. If they are given the opportunity to meet and work with their peers to solve problems, you can benefit from their combined energy.

While this activity flies in the face of the military style of leadership - the norm in most organisations - it's a great way to weed out poor ideas and strengthen the good ones.

3. Give Them Experiences

Most of the skills potential strategic leaders need are learnt from actual projects, not in theory. Continuously expose individuals to opportunities which stretch their capabilities, helping them to build mental links between different parts of the organisation.

The combination of these three approaches gives new strategic leaders the right blend of challenge and opportunity. It's a big mistake to think that all you need to do is keep them happy until their moment for promotion arrives. That's old thinking which may have worked for you, but it certainly won't work for them.

Instead, assign challenging assignments from the onset which gives them a chance to test their skills in the real world. If this steps on a few toes and disrupts the old paradigm of promotion-by-loyalty so be it. The company will still benefit. Just be ready to step aside at the right time so that you don't become an obstacle to your company's future.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com