By John E. Park, D.Ed.
The 2018 NCAA basketball season wrapped up a few weeks ago with Villanova winning its second championship in three years. It didn’t happen by accident! Coach Jay Wright did a great job of motivating his players, challenging them to perform at their best, and making substitutions at just the right time. The players on the court excelled at passing, shooting three-point shots, and playing defense. Have you ever watched a group of 5-year-olds play the same game of basketball? It looks very different. Most of their time is spent with their heads down focused on the ball or the player right in front of them.
To play the game the right way – the way Villanova players did in their run to the championship – you need your head up so you are aware of the environment. Where are the defenders? Where are the opportunities to pass the ball or take a shot? For me, this is a great example of a person or an organization who is able to think and manage strategically versus someone who has their head down focusing on what is right in front of them.
Thinking strategically means you are able to see one or two steps ahead. You have vision and are aware of your environment. You are able to be in the present and focus on execution, but you also have your head up and are able to identify potential new opportunities to grow your business in a positive and profitable manner.
Why is strategic thinking important?
A lot can go wrong if you aren’t aware of where you are on the basketball court and where the other team’s players are on the court. You could step out of bounds, or you could dribble into an opposing player and have the ball stolen. None of these will help you win the game. In business, we often see organizations miss new product or service opportunities because they were slow to market or failed to adapt to the changing needs of their customers before it is too late. Retail giants of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Sears and JC Penney, struggle because Amazon recognized early on that online shopping had great appeal to consumers because it saves time and, in many cases, money. The giant department store chains were slow to create an online strategy, and they will not recover the market share they lost.
Michael Porter has written several books on strategy. He talks about strategy in terms of creating competitive advantage, differentiating yourself from the competition, and finding ways to reposition products and services to new clients in different geographic areas or industries. For me, strategic thinking means you are able to identify opportunities and then connect the dots in a manner that allows you to be efficient and effective in the pursuit of that opportunity. On one hand, you can be objective and evaluate an opportunity based on its financial merit, but at the same time, you must also recognize both the potential positive and negative impact on the people in your organization.
Wayne Gretzky, a Hall of Fame hockey player of the 1980s, is attributed with saying “I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck will be.” This is a great example of strategic thinking and being able to anticipate an opportunity… and going after it in a rational and decisive manner.
What are some skills or competencies that go along with being a “strategic leader”?
I believe one of the strongest skills is the ability to be a critical thinker. What that means to me is being able to objectively look at a situation and evaluate it in the context of the current environment, understanding the political aspects of the situation, and taking into account the people and the emotions that are involved. It is being empathetic and looking at things through other people’s perspectives, as well as being able to look at the data available through a variety of lenses.
Strategic thinkers are lifelong learners who recognize that when they do make a mistake, they need to learn from that mistake and move on. They are able to look at a situation and anticipate potential unintended consequences. Strategic thinkers are able to set clear goals and be confident in their ability to communicate their vision.
How can organizations benefit from thinking more strategically and developing a strategic plan?
The key is making the transition from a focus on the tactical day-to-day aspects of the business, such as monitoring the budget and administrative costs, to a strategic leader focused on the future. What I am suggesting is a leader who is able to anticipate and identify potential opportunities for growth and transformation of the organization or to identify potential risks that can be evaluated and mitigated appropriately. A strategic leader is an individual who is able to solve challenging problems, make sound decisions, and navigate a complex and rapidly changing environment. Many organizations are facing economic and regulatory challenges. Strategic leaders must be able to operate in the gray areas of business, be comfortable in ambiguous situations, and respond in a strong ethical manner that takes into account all stakeholders of the organization. I also believe a strategic leader has the ability to adapt his or her communication style to the audience, whether it be in the board room, among peers on the leadership team, or in a staff meeting.
Strategic leaders have a deep understanding of the organization and the industry they are in. They are able to identify and understand key metrics, and to transform data into information that can drive performance. Strategic leaders keep their heads up, aware of the importance of day-to-day activities but with their eyes focused on the future, scanning for new opportunities.
John Park, D.Ed., will speak at the PICPA Health Care Conference. He brings a unique perspective to this topic, beginning his career over 30 years ago as a commercial property and casualty underwriter, spending over 25 years at Penn State focused on leadership development and strategic planning teaching and research. He is a director with Baker Tilly, focusing on leadership development, emotional intelligence, and strategic planning. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.