Four truths about strategic leadership

The shift to strategic leadership – questions questions questions

In the executive coaching work I do, I spend a lot of time with senior executives en route to taking a role at the next tier up, sometimes at the very highest level in their organisation or thereabouts. And for many of the people I work with who are at that transition point, or who are considering it, there are some very important (verging on existential) questions that they bring to conversations. Questions like ‘How will leading at that level be different from what I’m used to?’, ‘How will I be spending my time?’,  ‘How will I know everything about the business area that I’m going to be responsible for?’,  ‘What about the politics, how will I navigate that, I don’t do politics?’, ‘What will the purpose of my role be – it’s clear for me right now, but how will I define it there?’  This blog is about making the career move to senior leadership and some home truths about what it means.

I want to cover the following four essential truths about strategic leadership:

  1. It’s no longer about what you know, it’s about what you think
  2. Politics are inevitable
  3. Trust is necessary
  4. Imposter syndrome is real

Truth 1: It’s not about what you know but what you think

For my first truth, it’s really important to recognise that in a move to strategic leadership, you are generally less likely to be appointed to a role because of your expertise or content knowledge in a given area…in fact you may find yourself in a role where you are definitely NOT an expert. No, strategic leaders are valued for what they think – the opinions they can offer, based on their experience, their ability to synthesise data to help make sound decisions, to predict disruption in the wider world, to say the unsayable, or to link the current situation to the future position.  Strategic leaders are valued for their role in creating lasting organisations by providing wisdom. And wisdom is rarely about content knowledge.

In fact, the wise approach is to recognise that you simply cannot know the detail of the content of the work of everyone who reports to you. They are the experts, and they are the people you need to rely on to get the job done.  I’ve heard too many stories of strategic leaders taking a super-detailed approach in their work, seemingly understanding more than any of their management team do about the content of the work of each department…and then moving role to a new context, where they try and take a similar approach only to find the experience overwhelming, stressful and unmanageable. In some cases, this can lead to complete burnout.

But this is a truth of strategic leadership – you can’t know much as they do, nor should you try to. But if you’re someone who prides themselves on their knowledge and you feel that it is important to have a technical understanding of what some or all of the people in your area deliver day to day, there are ways. What about carving out time each week to meet with a different member of your new team who can educate you on what they do. That way at least, you’ll keep learning, and you’ll be building trust and stronger relationships with members of your team who will sense your curiosity and humility in coming to them as the experts.

Truth 2: Politics are inevitable

For my next truth, in making the transition to strategic leadership, you have to appreciate that politics are inevitable. You simply cannot ignore politics at the higher levels of leadership in most organisations. So strategic leadership isn’t just about what you think, it’s also about who you know, and how you manage your stakeholder relationships effectively.  You’ll experience a shift from a downward focus (on your team) to an outward focus (to peers), an upward focus (to senior stakeholders) and in some cases an external focus (for example into shareholders, customer groups, or even government or other bodies).

When you reach the upper echelons of most organisations, you find that there are some folk who aren’t the smartest or the bravest or the most visionary and you might well wonder what it is at that they’ve got that put them in such a senior position. Well, typically, they’re really good at relationships, at working the network, at leveraging who they know. And at the end of it all, however much baggage might come with the word ‘politics’, it’s really just a higher stakes form of stakeholder management and stakeholder engagement.

So my top tip here to do some of the groundwork before (or at least as soon as) you land in your new leadership role. Work out who the VIPs are in your immediate vicinity, what they expect from you, what they can give to you, and take steps to build those relationships – sooner rather than later.  In particular, get clear on what your immediate boss expects from you – what is their vision for your role and what it can achieve, what about timelines, what would success look like for them in year one? And how will you work together, how often should you meet, what’s important for them to know and what isn’t?

Once you’ve got a grasp of the knowns, ask around to find out about the unknowns, those folk who are more in the background but who are nonetheless major influencers of your stakeholder group – find out what’s important to them and build out those relationships too. Finally, it’s important to think wide when you’re at the top – ask yourself which external stakeholders or stakeholder groups might you need to engage with? What can you find out about the history of any previous relationships with your organisation or perhaps with your predecessor? For more on stakeholder engagement and stakeholder management, take a listen to my podcast at Season 10, episode 7, Building your stakeholder engagement strategy.

Truth 3: Trust is necessary

My third truth is that trust is necessary – you have to be able to trust people before they’ve earned it. And that’s hard when your level of responsibility is that much greater, and particularly when you don’t know the people around you.  But you simply can’t know everything and be everywhere. You can’t roll up your sleeves and get stuck in if there’re a particularly difficult problem to deal with, at least not in the way that you used to. You need to do it through others. And that needs trust…as well as good delegation. We’ll come onto delegation but before that, when you land in a new strategic leadership role, it’s a good idea to keep a ‘watching/observing brief’ for a decent chunk of time, ideally the first 3 months. That way, you can check out the people you have, spot any gaps or issues and stay separate without getting too operationally involved in jumping in and fixing too quick. Once you’ve been through that first 90 days and you’re ready to start leading your team on a day to day basis, delegation will become your short cut to trust. I podcast on how to delegate effectively at Season 3, episode 5 but in summary here my tips are: Brief clearly, check in early, give honest feedback and stick to the plan you’ve agreed. That way, you can trust, because you will be much clearer on where someone is in delivering what you’ve asked.

Truth 4: Imposter syndrome is real

My fourth and final truth is the one that’s probably the hardest to prepare for: the amount of space and time you’re likely to find in your working day. Now this isn’t true of every strategic leadership role of course but in my experience, most newly appointed strategic leaders find that, although they are still busy, they’re not AS busy as they used to be, because the operational day-to-day is more distant. They have fewer people coming to them with questions, they don’t have to attend as many meetings, write as many reports, deliver as many presentations as they used to.  However, in the areas where their views are sought, they have a significantly greater impact on decision-making, on the direction of travel for a product or business area or organisation. While their impact may be greater, this is less frequent and less easily seen than the quick hit results that they’re used to getting through working with their team or when they sent off a weekly report or monthly management information pack.

Now on the face of it, that’s one of the benefits of taking a strategic leadership role. You have more space and time to breathe, to think, to see things more clearly for the benefit of the organisation as a whole. But man is that a shift. So, way back at Season 4, episode 1, I talked about imposter syndrome and that is SO relevant here because one of the greatest challenges for the newly appointed strategic leader is to feel valuable and that what they’re doing is actually worthwhile, that they are justifying their salary (even in cases where everything is going well, maybe even record-breakingly well). And that seems to be because they’ve stopped doing so much of the doing and given up trying to know as much as there is to know. Imposter syndrome is real, it happens to pretty much everyone when you start something new but in strategic roles it can be with you for a while.

Finding a way to tame your inner critic is important here. You know, the little voice that tells you that you’re not good enough or smart enough or that someone’s about to come down the corridor and tell you that there’s been a terrible mistake and the job isn’t yours after all but has been given to someone much more suitable. A loud inner critic is not going to help you think well or make your greatest contribution. So some tips on managing it:

  1. Don’t believe everything you think – your thoughts are not the truth…take a step back and get some balance by writing down accurate statements about the facts of any situation.
  2. Don’t get sucked back in to the operational – there is often such a strong urge in strategic leadership roles to get back into the doing because it feels good, feels natural, you feel like you’re contributing again. But it’s dangerous, because it sends the wrong message to your team – it may undermine them or hold them back in their own development or in them taking on more responsibility. Instead, keep delegating well.
  3. Be a supportive friend to yourself – it’s amazing how harsh we allow our inner critic to be; there’s no way we’d accept that kind of behaviour, language or attitude from another human. Why then from ourselves? So, practice using a more friendly, supportive tone with what you say to yourself.
  4. Get present – if you find yourself getting stuck on a negative thought or catastrophising, get into your body and into your senses and feel the feelings of being right here in the present moment. That way, you’re shutting out the space that’s being taken up with your inner critic.

In summary: make the move with your eyes open

Those then are my four truths. 1. It’s no longer about what you know, it’s about what you think. 2. Politics are inevitable, 3. Trust is necessary and 4. Imposter syndrome is real.  If after considering all of that, you decide to reconsider making a move to strategic leadership, that’d be understandable. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone.

But for those who do decide to embark on the journey please know that the rewards are great. Not just the financial rewards, but the difference you can make to an organisation in terms of its culture, its impact on the wider world, the lives of employees that you can positively affect and the legacy you can leave. But don’t be blindsided, this career transition needs a lot of work and it helps to have support along the way. That’s it for this week, till next time, stay strong.