Strategy is the charter of senior leaders. Or so many people think.
Often first-level leaders in an organization assume their role in strategy is insignificant; they are mere recipients with little to no influence on the direction of the company. However, in our experience, every organization expects leaders at all levels to be strategic leaders – whether or not they own the creation of the strategy.
So what is a strategic leader, if not the creator of the strategy? Strategy happens at different levels of the organization. At Insight Experience, we teach new leaders how to fit into, and thrive within, the strategic hierarchy.
First, new leaders own the responsibility of understanding the strategic directives – what they are, and why the company has them. That information may be communicated clearly to them….or not. Successful first-level leaders seek new sources, push for clarity and ask good questions - important skills for the next step in being a strategic leader: framing.
The Power of Framing for Strategic Leaders
A participant in one of our leadership development programs described his critical business issue: “We operate in a market with hostile competitors engaged in predatory pricing. We are constantly challenged to demonstrate our value to customers, and are still experiencing above-average churn.” This was his frame. His frame had a great deal of power: it prompted action and investment by his team, all of which was directed at convincing customers their offering had superior value.
We teach leaders the cognitive tool of framing by helping them to define their key messages about an issue (What’s important? What’s not important? What does it mean for us?), and then reframe the issue by defining two alternatives.
Where New Leaders Get Stuck
It is in this process of outlining alternatives that many leaders get stuck; we are so committed to our initial frame, it’s difficult to reimagine the core issue. The lesson here is not that our initial frame is often wrong, but that a strategic leader thinks across the options, looking at a problem from multiple lenses. When pushed to define alternatives, our initial reaction will be to dismiss them. In the example above, the leader developed alternatives, vetted them with a peer, and then begrudgingly acknowledged his new frame: our prices are too high. This frame requires an entirely different set of approaches by his team.
The way first-level leaders frame issues for others requires that they use their creative thinking skills, their understanding of the strategy and their communication skills. While newer leaders may not be making the big bets in an organization, their leadership is often closest to the customer experience. By embracing their unique role in strategic leadership, they best position the company for successful execution, and lay a foundation for their evolution as strategic leaders.
Karen Maxwell Powell is a Managing Partner at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.