I have two questions for you.
- Are you a strategic thinker, or a tactical thinker (or both?)?
- Professionally speaking, where do you hope to be in 5–10 years?
Before you answer #2, you must answer #1.
Many people don’t know how to answer the first question. Either they confuse strategy and tactics (a leading cause of long, meandering meetings), or they lack self-awareness. So they pursue career paths that don’t suit them and wonder why they can’t get any traction.
Whether you aspire to the C-suite or to leadership in your specialty area, success depends on knowing who you are. Asking whether you’re satisfied with that. And setting career goals that make sense.
The Strategist: Imagining and Mapping the Future
Years ago, a leading security company brought me on board to help with recruiting and hiring. The CEO insisted that he be involved in all manager- and executive-level hiring decisions. He wanted to make sure strategic thinkers filled those roles.
To him, finding a great strategic thinker was like striking gold. Many CEOs share his view. In every sector, strategic thinkers tend to dominate the ranks of upper-level management.
According to Myers & Briggs, intuitive types (i.e., strategic thinkers)—those with “N” in their personality profiles—look for patterns and larger meanings. They imagine what’s possible in the future, rather than focusing on the here and now. In business, they are the visionaries and pioneers who chart new paths to market domination (à la Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg).
In the general population, N’s account for roughly one out of every four people. The other three are the S’s—the tacticians, or problem solvers.
The Tactician: Studying and Solving Problems
Are you more detail oriented? Do you excel at problem solving? Then you might be a tactical thinker. Many presidents, famous generals, and titans of industry and entertainment fall into this category.
For mission-critical functions—designing a more powerful jet engine or restoring crumbling infrastructure, for example—you don’t want a dreamer. You want someone laser-focused on the details: the root causes of inefficiency and failure, and how to fix them.
Tacticians have a deconstructive mindset. They take a problem and break it down into smaller pieces. These are the people who manage risk, respond to crises (“The bridge is falling!”), and engineer solutions.
The Bilingual: A Rare (But Powerful) Breed
If you’re a tactician, you may think strategists have it made. Yes, demand for strategists is high at the executive level. But it’s the tactical talent that keeps the bridges standing.
Being a tactical thinker in no way limits your success; it just alters your path. Tactical thinkers who want to move into executive positions can overwrite their genetic programming, so to speak, and think strategically—in effect, become “bilingual.” It’s tough to do, and few manage to achieve it, but it can be done.
If you’re determined to do so, here’s what it will take.
- Clear your mind. Get out of your head, away from your desk, and out of your department.
- Question everything, including your own assumptions and biases.
- Imagine a future more along the lines of what you’re looking for. Better yet, brainstorm many possible futures.
- Evaluate each possibility. Study from multiple perspectives. Consider all arguments, both for and against.
- Select the best path forward. Don’t succumb to “analysis paralysis” or the fear of failure.
The courage to make tough choices is what strategic thinking is all about. Strategic thinkers are adept at narrowing the field from 12 choices to one, without getting hung up on the details.
The mark of a great strategist—the rarest breed of all—is the ability to make the right choice. And, every so often, change the course of history.