The ability to think strategically is one of the most sought-after skills for high-level employees. Surveys of executives show that 97% of those surveyed cite strategic thinking as one of the top skills they look for when hiring. This fact leaves us with two questions: what is strategic thinking, and how can you look for it when hiring?
Defining Strategic Thinking
To put it simply, “strategic thinking” is the ability to think on a strategic level. A recursive definition isn’t helpful, though, so let’s dig in further.
To quote the Center for Management & Organization Excellence (CMOE):
“Strategic thinking is simply an intentional and rational thought process that focuses on the analysis of critical factors and variables that will influence the long-term success of a business, a team, or an individual.
Strategic thinking includes careful and deliberate anticipation of threats and vulnerabilities to guard against and opportunities to pursue. Ultimately strategic thinking and analysis lead to a clear set of goals, plans, and new ideas required to survive and thrive in a competitive, changing environment. This sort of thinking must account for economic realities, market forces, and available resources.
Strategic thinking requires research, analytical thinking, innovation, problem-solving skills, communication and leadership skills, and decisiveness.”
This definition drills down to the heart of the matter. Strategic thinking is a focused and intentional process wherein an individual can see a problem not just in the immediate terms but in overall, long-term, top-down perspectives.
You can learn strategic thinking, but it may also be inherent. Some people are born or raised in such a way as to develop inherently strategic thought processes. They can look at problems from the top-down, see not just the initial problem but the consequences of actions taken, picture a goal they want to achieve and create solutions that lead them towards that goal, and more importantly, do all of that reflexively.
Critically, strategic thinking can be a conscious process, and indeed, those who have learned the art of strategic thinking are often better at it than those who do it intuitively. When you’ve learned to think strategically about a problem, you’re more likely to rationally cover all the bases, thinking on a deeper and more comprehensive level.
To be clear, both forms of strategic thinking are acceptable, and both are better as leadership qualities than candidates who don’t think strategically at all or whose “strategic” thought applies only to the surface level of a problem.
The Value of Strategic Thinking
The ability to view a problem from many angles, propose solutions, and extrapolate the fallout of those solutions is inherently valuable.
However, strategic thinkers also bring several specific benefits to their companies and organizations.
- Overall Perspective. Strategic thinkers can see the “big picture” and foresee problems that might crop up outside their sphere of influence. They can see interrelations and connections between business processes that might not otherwise seem related. Moreover, they can foresee these problems and navigate past them before they become problems.
- Future Sight. With their perspective and logical point of view, strategic thinkers can predict the future with an often startling degree of accuracy given the information they have available. They make decisions that benefit their organizations (not just immediately but in the future) when short-term thinkers might decide that trade future success for immediate benefits.
- Current Value. Strategic thinkers aren’t fixated on the future; they recognize that sometimes, an organization must make potentially harmful decisions to profit in the immediate future, to keep itself going. They can remember when this needs to happen and how to do it in a minimally destructive way.
- Global Views. Strategic thinkers maintain a level of awareness of their industry, situation, and position that encompasses factors as far-ranging as the other side of the globe. With global communications and supply lines, taking advantage of resources, potential customers, and other attributes worldwide allows anyone to compete on the international stage. Strategic thinkers power this level of competition.
- Upwards Mobility. Strategic thinkers often stick with an organization and, even if they’re hired at a lower level, tend to make their way into the upper ranks of management and executive leadership positions in relatively short order. Given the opportunity, they can become valuable assets to a firm for years to come. This benefit is also a drawback; however, if a strategic thinker is passed over too often, they are dramatically more likely to jump ship and move to an organization (usually a competitor) that values their abilities.
- Innovation. Strategic thinkers can synthesize multifaceted perspectives from various situations and identify opportunities for innovation that may be missed overwise.
Strategic thinkers tend to find themselves at the upper levels of management, in executive teams, and as part of the C-suite for their organizations. However, modern companies tend to be “flat” compared to historical organizations, and as such, critical business decisions are often made at the middle levels as much as at the upper levels. Thus, strategic thinkers must be positioned throughout the organization, with open lines of communication to work together for the greater good of the company.
One question that frequently comes up is whether you should hire your strategic thinkers or develop them internally.
The truth is, developing strategic thinkers from within your organization is difficult, expensive, and prone to failure. Unless existing employees already have some level of skill with strategic thinking, developing the talent is not realistic. Almost every organization looks for strategic thinkers as part of their hiring process, particularly for management and higher-level roles.
Methods for Hiring Strategic Thinkers
When your goal is to screen your candidates to identify strategic thinkers, you need to adapt your hiring process to fit that goal. Here are eight methods you can implement to help screen candidates, identify strategic thinkers, and evaluate their fit for your organization.
Present Candidates with a Real Problem. The number one way to identify whether a candidate is a strategic thinker or not is to present them with a real strategic problem and evaluate how they think about it and what solutions they propose.
“You can use a real unsolved problem, which has the advantage of providing you with several potential solutions. Or you can use a problem that you’ve already solved, which means you’ll already know the critical steps that they should include in an answer. With either option, you should verbally describe the problem or provide a written description, give the candidate a few minutes to think, and then ask them to walk you through the steps they would take to investigate and resolve the problem.”
In some cases, this may even present you with a better solution than the one you have developed already. There’s no better way to find a valuable strategic thinker than to have one benefit your organization before they’re even hired.
Ask Candidates to Review a Known Flawed Plan. Another excellent way to identify a strategic thinker is to present them with an existing strategic plan and ask them to review it and identify potential flaws in the project.
Again, you can go about this in two ways. You can begin with a fake plan that you have inserted errors into, or you can use a real-life program that your business implemented and record any issues you encounter. The first can be difficult because developing a fake strategic plan that doesn’t ring hollow can be tricky, and the flaws end up looking obvious. Meanwhile, using an actual program requires having retained knowledge of older strategic plans and their points of failure, which not every organization does. A combination of the two may often be necessary until you have more real-world data to use as a basis for your interview question.
Ask Questions Looking for Strategic Answers. While evaluating “in practice” data and solutions is a valuable technique, often you can identify a strategic thinker – or weed out those who lack the capacity for strategic thought – simply by asking strategic-level questions.
Questions such as:
- When working on a strategic problem within your current firm, how do you identify the relevant stakeholders? Do you have any stakeholders outside of your organization?
- How do you go about mapping the interdependencies and relationships between different aspects of a strategic problem when developing a solution?
- What steps have you taken throughout your career (or the past year) to make yourself more of a strategic thinker?
These questions help you evaluate the strategic thought a candidate puts into their work and give you insight into their self-awareness. Be aware that some strategic thinkers don’t necessarily put intentional thought into developing their technique. These can still be valuable employees, but they may also have significant blind spots and operate via intuition, which may not be ideal.
Evaluate Questions Candidates Ask for Strategic Reasoning. When interviewing a candidate, the interview process goes both ways. Traditionally, while you ask most of the questions, candidates will also be allowed to ask their own. They may also ask questions throughout the interview process, for example, asking for clarification or further details when evaluating a strategic plan.
To quote Vocal. Media’s Salvador Lorenz,
“The right candidates will ask such questions as about business strategy, or their individual use of strategy in your business. They may even ask you how your company utilizes strategic thinking in its own way, which is an instant portrayal of how close they are to this form of thinking.”
Ask Candidates to Explain Their Thought Processes. One of the difficulties inherent in assessing candidates for strategic thinking is that there’s no right way to think strategically. Different candidates can assess a situation differently and come to the same solution through various means or even an equally good alternative solution. Often, diversity in background and life leads to different modalities of thinking.
Thus, one of the best ways to screen for strategic thinking – particularly intentional, strategic thinking – is to ask the candidate to explain how they come to a given strategic solution after asking them to create or evaluate one, as in the methods above.
The key is not to look for the “correct” solution or look for the “right” path to a resolution. Instead, the key is to evaluate whether a process is strategic. This method can be challenging and requires that the interviewer be a strategic thinker.
Examine Resumes for Indications of Past Strategic Success. It’s impossible to scan candidate applications, resumes, and cover letters for the phrase “strategic thinking” and call it a day. However, it may be possible to filter initial resumes based on specific keywords that indicate strategic thinking in past roles.
ERE Media lists many options:
“Strategic goals, multiyear, cross-functional, providing a competitive advantage and increasing profitability and margins. Additional phrases to look for include: more than 1 percent impact on corporate revenue, interdependencies, a global approach, shareholder’s perspective, an industry inflection point, connecting the dots, VUCA, prioritization, predictive analytics, and data-driven decisions. Individuals that use words/phrases like integrated, strategic partner, think like an owner, failure/root cause analysis, or those who routinely quantify their results in dollars or revenue impacts are also highly likely to be strategic.”
Be aware, however, that the use of these phrases does not necessarily indicate a strategic thinker. It may suggest that someone has read a primer on what keywords to use to get hired as a strategic thinker.
Watch for Signs of Strategic Thinking Throughout an Interview. Often, when conducting an interview, you may be able to observe strategic thinking in action. The specific signs of this can vary, which is why the interviewer must be a strategic thinker. Like recognizes like.
Don’t Mistake Tactical Thinking for Strategic Thinking. Where strategic thinking is long-term, tactical thinking is narrower and more short-term. Tactical thinking can be valuable to an organization, but it can be a distraction when you’re specifically seeking out strategic thinking. Six Sigma thinking focuses on cost savings, and those who express their “alignment with strategic goals” are all typically tactical thinkers.
Identifying strategic thinkers for your management and executive teams is of critical importance for long-term business success, so it’s well worth the effort to implement an interview process that looks for them.
Do you have any questions for me on strategic thinking? Please share with us in the comment section below! I’d love to hear from you, and I take the time to reply to every comment I receive personally.
Andrew Greenberg’s roots in recruiting date back to 1996. He has experience both on the agency-side and corporate-side of the staffing business, with a focus in the financial services space at companies like Bloomberg and UBS. He also has core experience with information technology staffing, and has worked for major software companies such as SAP Business Objects and IBM/Informix Software. To get in touch with Andrew, you can reach him by email or by phone at (800) 797-6160.