Strategic; it’s the label that everyone’s looking for. We lead with it on our resumes, we search for it on our 360 feedback, and we yearn for it from our boss and colleagues. After all, strategic people are more successful, better paid, and have greater leadership potential.
In my work with high potential leaders I find that many of them have a good degree of strategic thinking capability. After all, that’s part of the reason they are perceived as high performers in their current roles. But when in meetings with senior people with bigger agenda items and higher stakes outcomes, something changes. They have a harder time translating their strategic thoughts into words. Either they clam up or ramble incoherently. They focus too much on tactics, instead of linking to a broader context.
To be perceived as promotion material for more senior roles, you have to not only think strategically, you have to learn to communicate strategically too. However the strategic communication part of the equation is a battle for many aspiring leaders. The thoughts are there, but they are not articulated in a way that showcases the breadth and depth of their thinking.
So how exactly do you communicate more strategically?
Leaders who do this well actually speak a different dialect. They use different words, frame their comments, and elevate the conversation to a higher level. But if you’re digging out your buzzword bingo cards, put them away. This isn’t about using fancy jargon to sound smart; it’s about leveraging language that gives people confidence in your ability to think broader, bolder and longer-term. It’s about articulating the connections you see to your business, and the impact they have on potential courses of action. The trick is to let people into your thought process – how you got to your idea or recommendation. Concisely.
Below are 6 ways to speak more strategically by linking to something broader. Try one out at your next meeting.
Focus on the customer – customer centricity, client focus, stakeholder management; that’s the name of the game today yet so many conversations we have day after day are completely insular. Try something like this instead: “Our customers’ primary concern is about responsiveness. Our conversation around the solution hasn’t addressed that yet. We need to bring in the customer lens by…” Be the leader that brings the voice of the customer back into the conversation.
Link to broader goals – demonstrate that you are a leader that creates line of sight from the corporate strategy down to the department and to your team. Link challenges and opportunities discussed directly to the stated higher level objectives. “If our strategic objective is to capitalize on organic growth following our 5 acquisitions, we can’t allocate resources to creating more solutions. We need to focus on skilling up the sales force to sell what we have. I suggest we move forward by…”
Quantify with numbers – strategic communicators don’t rely on how they ‘feel’ or what they ‘think’, they back up their insights and recommendations with numbers and data. I have a colleague who does this extremely well. I noticed it for the first time when we were doing reviews of our solution areas with the boss. While we were not asked to report on the financials for our solution, she was the only one that peppered her presentation with numbers. The impact of her speaking about growth percentages, shifts in sector representation, and anticipated growth targets put the rest of us to shame. The impression she left was that she knew her stuff. Remember though, that too many numbers can take you back into the tactical weeds. Pick a few meaningful metrics only.
Project a future focus – strategic communicators are able to link their comments to a compelling vision. They show how their suggested path will help achieve the brighter future. Conversely, they can just as easily show how a course of action will mitigate risk in the future. Use language that describes how actions (or inactions) impact the longer term picture. “The crux of our strategy is about excellence in execution. On the one hand the changes we’re suggesting today will be costly to implement; on the other hand, it will propel us faster to the new business model bringing much needed efficiencies. Let’s discuss the merits of moving sooner rather than later…”
Show where and how to win – leaders who speak in a language that emphasizes competitive advantage, and how to achieve it, are seen as having the unique combination of breadth of strategic vision and depth of execution to achieve that vision. “If we want to be #2 then we need to increase our time and energy on this part of the plan. If we wait longer, it will put us years behind and we may never catch up. I recommend taking resources from…”
If you want to get credit for being strategic, then you need to learn to speak a different language. Before you lob an idea or recommendation during your next conversation, try using short prefacing statements that make a connection to your customers, your strategy, or how the organization will win. Your listeners will have increased confidence that you know your business, have thought through your recommendations, and understand the longer-term impact.