The shaky shift to strategic leadership

It’s not uncommon for us to work with team or technical leaders who are struggling to make the shift to a strategic leadership role.  It’s also not uncommon for us to hear CEs frustrated that their senior managers are stuck in operational details and not operating strategically.

A core reason for the shaky shift is the different nature of strategic problems and decision making.  In a technical or team leader role, the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made are often clearer. The cause and effect of a situation may be obvious and we can call on our technical expertise and past experience to help inform what to do.

In senior leadership roles, problems are often multi-faceted and complicated.  They usually involve competing sets of information and interest groups.  There may be no past precedent to call upon, nor any clear cause and effect to help guide decision making.

Coaching leaders who are finding the shift difficult often begins with normalising this dynamic.  Letting people know that struggling with the transition is not uncommon can be a huge relief, which in turn allows them to more readily engage in new approaches.

One such approach is to invite them to consider that the decision-making approaches that worked for them when solving technical problems may not work in their new role.  For example, there may be no clear cause and effect for why there is conflict in the senior leadership team, and there is no one right way of creating a culture of collaboration.

As issues become more complicated and complex, we need to apply different decision-making approaches.  We need to become more comfortable operating in ambiguity and turbulence and accept there may be no clear cause and effect to what is occurring.  We need to accept there might be more than one right answer to a problem.  There may not even be a solution, but rather competing tensions to be managed!   Experimentation might be necessary – trying something to see if it makes a difference, and if not, trying something else.

As a team leader, identity and confidence is often forged from being chief technician and problem solver.  In senior roles, listening, comprehension, and facilitation skills come to the fore.  What becomes increasingly important are skills such as asking insightful questions, being able to frame situations in new ways, facilitating joint problem solving, and listening keenly to different perspectives and possible courses of action.

Initially these new approaches feel awkward.  In time they become easier, and then familiar.

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