Anticipation: First Habit of Strategic Thinkers

strategic thinking

Everyone wants their work to be considered strategic. The “strategic” label is one of the highest forms of praise an employee can receive from management, leaving those who are not lauded in this way wondering, “What do others do that I don’t do?” or, “How can I become strategic?”

These are good questions, and ones that employers need to be ready to address. In our experience, leaders usually don’t have a response prepared to offer clear direction about how employees or peers can develop their strategy skills. When we work with advisors assessing senior staff or hiring senior-level positions, the advisors often say they want teammates who “act strategically”, “think strategically”, “provide strategic vision”, “employ a strategic approach”, or “adopt a strategic posture”. That all sounds fantastic…but what does any of it mean? And how will employers or employees know if they are indeed meeting the “strategic thinking” threshold? 

One common refrain we hear is: “A strategic team member will generate great ideas about how we can grow and strengthen our standing with clients and the community.”

That supposes that great ideas equal great strategy.  But is that necessarily the case?  Employees up and down the org chart offer ideas all the time–but not all of those people or those ideas are considered strategic.  And what exactly is a “great” idea anyway? Who decides whether an idea is great? If the evaluation of the idea is subjective, firms run the risk of only hearing ideas that employees believe their leaders want to hear. However, the most valuable (and strategic) people will also tell you the things that you do not want to hear. Most importantly, we believe that limiting the definition of strategy to great ideas misses the whole point, as strategic thinking is ultimately about process.

Elements of Strategic Thinking

Much has been written about strategy; there are countless books on the subject.  But we at Transcend PM are most interested in the behaviors that people engage in when they are acting strategically. For this topic, our go-to source is Paul Schoemaker at the Wharton School. In a classic Inc. Magazine article from 2012, Schoemaker describes six habits that strategic thinkers exhibit. They:

  • Anticipate
  • Think Critically
  • Interpret
  • Decide
  • Align
  • Learn

The beauty of this framework is that each of these behaviors can be learned, practiced, and honed. If you or your teammates are looking for a way to strengthen strategy skills, this is a very good place to start.  In working with Schoemaker’s framework, we have found that these six behaviors act in a roughly circular sequence, with each informing the next, and then repeating the cycle through successive iterations. 

Strategic Habit #1

Let’s take a look at them in order, starting with: Anticipate.

According to Schoemaker, leaders must develop a “peripheral vision” which alerts them to what is going on in the wider fields of their firm, their industry, and the world at large.  They cannot simply be focused on what is right in front of their faces. To effectively anticipate, Schoemaker says that leaders must:

  • Look for game-changing information at the periphery of (the) industry
  • Search beyond the current boundaries of (the) business
  • Build wide external networks to help you scan the horizon better

“Game-changing information” is anything that will change or disrupt:

  • Your business model
    • What you do
    • How you do it
    • The resources you use
  • Your clients’ behaviors and expectations
  • The geographic, employment, and niche communities that you serve

Many advisors look at direct competitors when considering game-changing information and pretty much stop there. We encourage advisors to go further and consider firms that are in the industry but not direct competitors.  These companies may be small or large; they may be RIA or hybrid or MFO; they may target a specific client that you do not serve, or offer a service that you do not provide. Firms which are unlike yours will be exposed to forces that may not be evident to you, but could signal an impact that will come over your own horizon one day down the line.   

Take firms that are related to the wealth management business but not providers of it. Technology firms which have tools to support your business quickly come to mind, such as:

  • Financial planning platforms (e.g. Envestnet/MoneyGuide Pro, RightCapital)
  • CRM tools (e.g. Salesforce)
  • Trading platforms (e.g. Black Diamond)
  • Marketing (e.g. Oechsli)
  • HR support (e.g. Workday, PayChex)

Economic and financial events are standard considerations for anticipation each day. Look, too, at broad social and cultural trends that may inform the behavior of clients and your team in the long-run. This is where a broad and diverse network of contacts will help you identify relevant shifts. Capitalize on tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. You will want to curate your network to mindfully grow it with strategic anticipation in mind.  These platforms can be valuable reflections of what is to come. 

Broaden Your Resources

Also think about from where you get your information. Consider adding sources like the BBC, The Economist, etc., sources with a global and international perspective, as well as sites that might hold a diametrically opposed stance. Doing so will help you to see the industry and the world from a different perspective, one outside your normal field of vision.

We would like this post to be the start of a discussion about strategic thinking and behavior. What are your thoughts? How else can you develop “peripheral vision”? What resources can help you to anticipate change for your firms, your clients, and your team?  Let’s start a conversation…