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Stop Labelling Yourself "The Person Who Gets Things Done" - Unlock the Power of Strategic Thinking for Women Leaders

The good news for women in leadership is that by 50 we are considered to be as strategic as our male colleagues*.

For some magical reason, as we turn 50, we all become brilliant at strategy.

Prior to fifty, not so much.

Women are viewed as less strategic, get a lot of vague feedback about lacking strategic thinking, and in many cases, are terrified of the word. We often view ourselves as ''doers" - we get s*** done.

As a wonderful CEO in our Elevate & Influence course shared with me recently, "it stopped me applying for CEO roles for a long time as I thought it was all super high level strategy and I was operational, I make things happen. I didn't think I had the strategic skills for the role".

Could you be labelling yourself as the person who gets things done? This might be getting in your way of getting ahead.

Jack Zenger's research around the perception of Female Leaders Strategic Capability was interesting. It was the only leadership competency (of 19) that displayed a trend of improvement as we age and, across almost every other competency, females were rated higher.

Curious I say? It got me thinking about why.

Data presented in The Extremely Curious Case Of Women’s Strategic Thinking, by Jack Zenger in Forbes

What is Strategic Thinking and why it’s Important for Women in Leadership?

This question is always met with resounding silence. Like we sort of know but we're not 100% sure.

Put simply, Strategic thinking is a blend of qualities and characteristics that involve the cognitive ability to analyse complex situations (deep thinking), anticipate potential outcomes, make well informed decisions, set clear priorities and make choices about what to start and STOP doing to achieve long term goals. Goals that deliver a long lasting improvement to your organisation. It is about looking up and looking out to assess broader trends, patterns, risk and opportunities. It is about storytelling and engagement, addressing capability gaps and improving both culture and organisational mindsets.

A strategic thinker is able to look at ideas with a long road map in mind

It is a skill that is highly valued in senior executive roles.

It is a skill that you can improve with focus, discipline and intention.

It is also an area where I believe you may already have strong capability. IF you make the time to explore it.

It is a capability that can equally be applied to your own personal life, to becoming intentional about that wonderful career of yours, by developing a Personal Strategic plan. Look up and look out to imagine your next steps.

Exploring Misconceptions Regarding Women and Strategic Thinking

There is no gendered difference in the ability to develop the skills for strategic planning and thinking. There is however, compelling research suggesting misconceptions about women in leadership is linked to factors such as how we have all been socialised. That, even the language we use can lead to a bias about our capability in this area.

I work with incredible executives in big busy roles that are non-stop. Caught in the daily rhythm of reconciling budgets, managing performance, full diaries, working long hours, focused on that day, that problem. As "doers" they are knee deep in the detail and want to share it to demonstrate competency, to prove they have their finger on the pulse.

They have been rewarded for sharing data and facts.

A recent HBR article, Research: Men Speak More Abstractly Than Women by Cheryl Wakslak and Priyanka Joshi, shares that this concrete way of communicating is leading to us being evaluated as less strategic in the workplace.

""more-abstract speech tends to be associated with power and leadership. Moreover, the authors found that on average, women tend to use more concrete language while men use more abstract language, meaning that the way women are socialized to communicate can sometimes make them less likely to be seen as leaders".

Here is an example of concrete vs. abstract from the article

Concrete: Our new initiative will bring in additional business by adding a complementary suite of services to our core offering.
Abstract: Our new initiative will launch us into the future and make the company more innovative and prosperous.

Abstract thinking is linked to power and leadership and these are the skills people consider when they assess strategic thinking capability. Start paying attention. Awareness is the first key. Are you communicating with a clear link to long term strategy or are you in the weeds?

Maze to as a metaphor to how senior managers get aware if they are stuck in the week or are aware of their long term ideas

Strengthening Your Strategic Thinking Skills

There is no quick fix to this for any of us. By definiton strategic thinking is deep thinking. It doesn't happen when we squeeze it between our back to back meetings. Every leadership role involves an element of critical thinking, of generating new ideas and of innovation. It requires access to new information, about your market, competitors, trends. Exposure to different industries, to new technologies and to new networks.

Would you be considered a Strategic Thinker at work?

We always ask this question in our course. Strategic thinkers are often articulating their vision, looking up, proactive, communicating in concise planned messages, disciplined about protecting their deep thinking time. Non-strategic thinkers are running at a frenetic pace, doing it all, head down, saving the day, saving others and they are reactive. How would you rate yourself against these? How would others rate you?

Can you leave the detail in the dust?

This is the hardest step for any leader to make. To give this context, being really truly aware of your habits is challenging. As you make the transition from "doer" to leader, to senior executive and CEO, there won't be time to be across the same level of detail. Delegating, asking good questions and developing your "sniff test" muscle, will help you know when to stay at 10,000 feet and when to dive into the detail.

Tips for Communicating Your Ideas Strategically

Brilliant strategies fail when leaders don't engage their whole organisation into the Why. This is where Storytelling and vision setting skills matter the most, to gain buy-in, commitment and action from our teams. In our world we ask all of our participants to practice this skill. We ask them to write a compelling vision about a current change initiative and then share it with us.

We collaborate with the brilliant Karen Rule, Coaching Psychologist, who shares compelling data in our program on the best influencing strategies to use to engage the hearts and minds of our teams. Karen shares that the vast majority of leaders try to win their teams & stakeholders over by leaning on Rational Persuasion. Convincing with facts and figures. I'll give you 3 good reasons why. (See what I did there?)

She dispels the myth that this is the most effective method, when it is in fact less impactful and leads to more resistance to change.

It is the ability to set a vision, to help people imagine a better and more compelling future, like you as I see you stepping into the CEO role with the wind blowing in your hair, articulating your vision concisely, looking up and looking out anticipating your next move.

I do.

So next time a CEO or senior executive stops you to see how your day is going, avoid sharing a run down of how busy you have been, instead share something more visionary with them, something that is aligned to the organisations objectives.. picture you in this sequence.. "you know, I have been spending time thinking about where we are going as an organisation, and I am gathering information that I think will help grow our collective knowledge in that area.."

this next piece of advice is easy... explore through reading, and intentionally put the time in your diary. Whether it be short HBR Digital articles, or thought leading books. Read them with a view to how you can incorporate concepts you have explored into your work. Then incorporate them.

Women learning the skills to incubate ideas and build understanding of new concepts

Get out of the office and build networks across different industries. What can you learn?

Ask yourself "how can I demonstrate or apply strategic thinking in the next meeting?" In a customer focussed organization you could look at your customer process, identify and share challenges the experience creates (I say to do this rather than provide an update on your usual KPIs). Take the time to share the why on the importance. Then visualise what success looks like.

Conclusion – Reflecting on How to Change your Perspective and that of Others Regarding Women’s Strategic Thinking

So now that you know the secret, don't let it be a secret any longer! The truth is women are capable strategic thinkers but our busyness gives off the perception that we might be mired in the minutiae of detail, head down not head up :

  • First reflection is identify your own habits and blind spots and be more self aware when you are exhibiting non- strategic thinking behaviours. Then be intentional about changing what others see (i.e. a leader who is sharing compelling visions, externally focused, and creating space for deep thinking -MAKE IT OBVIOUS)

  • Second reflection is help your female colleagues to do the same! Share with them the habits that help with a better way to approach strategic thinking. Even better, when you see a female colleague being intentionally more strategic, point it out to both them and others. Create the PR needed to change the context. It is a well worn quote by Sir Isaac Newton 'If I have seen further (than others) it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. ' Be the giant for someone else

  • Third reflection is for individuals and organisations to be aware of many of the "socialized" factors that falsely label women as lacking in strategic capability. Challenge these factors and ask yourself "Am I judging based on the language being used? Can I lead people to link their updates to strategy, invite everyone to open with the big picture first and then choose to dive into the detail where needed (if needed).

Lastly don't wait to do any of the above, go to your calendar right now and cancel a meeting and set aside some time for thinking.... no better time to start being more strategic than right now.

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strategic planning and exploring new ideas when you don't get disturbed