I know this post is longer than is typical for this blog. Trust me, it will be worth the time you spend reading it. I came to know Erika Andersen through my friend, colleague, and mentor, Wally Bock, who had an intuition that Erika and I would have a few things in common. We do. One of those is her wonderful book, Being Strategic, Erika defines and explains “being strategic” in one of the most simple—but effectiveways I’ve ever seen.

Erika is the founding partner of Proteus International, a coaching, consulting, and training firm that helps organizations clarify and move toward their hoped-for future. Oh, and she’s a genuinely smart and wonderful person, too.

What does “being strategic” mean?

I love that you’re asking this. One of the reasons I wrote Being Strategic was to attempt to resolve some of the confusion around that phrase. People use it so muchand rarely explain what they mean by it. People use it to mean everything from “considering the competition,” to “thinking long-term,” to “being manipulative and cold-hearted,” to “agreeing with me!”

The definition I offer in my book for “being strategic” is: consistently focusing on those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. It’s a deceptively simple sentencethere’s a lot in there. It assumes that you know where you’re starting from, where you’re trying to go, and how you’re going to get thereand that you keep your attention directed toward doing it.

I’ve observed over the years that the best leadersthose who are most consistently successful in creating organizations that thrivehave and exercise this capability. They get very clear about the organization’s current stateboth strengths and weaknessesand then, based on that starting point, they envision and articulate a clear and compelling future. They select a handful of core directional effortsstrategiesthat they believe will best move them toward that future, and decide tactics for implementing those strategies. And then they stay consistently focused (and keep their organization consistently focused) on using those strategies to move toward the future they’ve envisioned.

How can “being strategic” be applied to the workplace relationships leaders must create or sustain?

Excellent, authentic relationships are essential if leaders are to be truly strategic. Even if a leader is skilled at both strategic thought and action, he or she needs to be operating within a web of strong relationships in order for that capability to have an impact organization-wide.

Here’s why: I’ve often seen truly brilliant leaders who have a clear strategic view of their organization and a well-defined strategic plan for getting the future they envisionbut who lack strong relationships, especially with those who work directly for him or her. Those organizations tend to do less well than you’d expect: the leaders’ vision and strategy don’t “translate” into the day-to-day, because the rest of the organization doesn’t understand or own it, and therefore isn’t committed to making it happen.

The process of being strategic, as we practice, facilitate and teach it in organizations, is essentially collaborative. It works best when you work together as a team to define the challenge, clarify your current state, envision your hoped-for future, agree on the obstacles to achieving that visionand then determine the strategies and tactics that will get you there. No one person can see clearly enough to do all those things for a whole organizationor even a whole department. And human beings are most committed to accomplishing those things they’ve helped to define.

Why do strategies fail? Why do they succeed?

trategies fail for lots of reasons. One of the most common is that strategies are, all too often, not created to move toward a defined future, but simply in response to a threat. For example, in the early eighties, Pepsi had a strategy of “winning on cost.” It was how they thought they’d take market share from Coke, which at the time was beating them in most domestic markets. Unfortunately, that strategy wasn’t linked to a clear vision (other than “kill Coke”), so they made some sales decisions that weren’t sustainable, in terms of impact on long-term profitability.

Here’s another one, which sounds weirdly obvious and avoidable, but I see it happening every day: strategies fail (even good strategies) when organizations stop focusing on implementing them. And that very often happens in hard economic times. One of our clients is in danger of this right now: they’re in the process of abandoning a strategy that’s key to their vision, and that has served them very well for a number of years, because they think it’s too expensive. (We’re trying to help, but they’re in panic mode, and that makes it hard to think clearly.)

Strategies succeed when (no surprise here, given what I’ve said so far!) key people in the organization work together to select strategies that will best move them toward their agree-upon future…and then consistently focus on implementing those strategies with tactics that are feasible, impactful and timely.

What are the most important elements of strategic thinking?

Let me answer that question in two ways. First, there’s the process of thinking strategically, which I describe as a mental model that consists of a “pre-step” and then four steps.

The pre-step we call “defining the challenge.” It consists of getting clear about the problem that you’re currently trying to solve – which can be as broad as “How can we create a sustainably profitable organization that provides unique value to our customers?” or as finely focused as “How can I make sure my number two person is ready to step into my role when I get promoted?”

Once you’re clear on the challenge before you, whatever it may be, the steps of strategic thinking are simple (though not necessarily easy). They are:

– “What is”: your current reality relative to your challenge;

– “What’s the Hope?”: your hoped-for future, the one in which your challenge has been successfully addressed;

– “What’s in the Way?”: the obstacle between where you are now and where you want to go;

– “What’s the Path?”: the strategies and then tactics that will best take you from where you are to where you want to go, while overcoming the obstacles.

Then there are the actual skills for being strategic: becoming a fair witness, pulling back the camera, and sorting for impact. You employ these mental skills throughout the steps outlined above.

Becoming a fair witness means getting as neutral and objective as possible about the situation. This is especially important when you have a strong emotional investment in a particular outcomeit’s all too easy to lose your objectivity about your current reality, or what’s possible. My favorite example of non-fair-witnessing are the contestants on American Idol who literally cannot sing…and yet have convinced themselves that they’re going to win the competition!

Pulling back the camera means mentally “stepping back from the action” so you can get more context and get clearer about why things are happening and how they’re connected. Quite often, when someone is told they’re “not being strategic” or are “too tactical,” it means others see them as only looking at things from a very narrow, close-in frame: staying focused only on their own actions, needs and point of view. Good strategic thinkers “pull back the camera” to look more broadly at the factors that might be impacting the current situation, or where it might be possible to take the organization, given the landscape surrounding it.

Sorting for impact means thinking about how much a particular fact, circumstance or event is going to affect your challenge. So, as you stay in fair witness mode and pull back the camera, you “screen” the data that comes into your viewfinder against your challenge, asking, “How important is this to the problem I’m trying to solve?” Sometimes the answer isn’t entirely clearbut far more often than not, it is…and doing this “sorting” process helps you stay focused on the things that are most essential to your success in the challenge you’re addressing.

Then you put it all together, using these three skills as you move through the model. It may sound complex, but once you get the hang of it, it starts to feel pretty natural.

And that, for me, is the most exciting thing about being strategicthat it’s learnable. Most people talk about being strategic as though it’s something you’re born with, or not. And too bad for you if you’re not! But we’ve seen over the years, in teaching people to us these skills and this process, that almost everyone can improve their ability to be strategicand thereby increase the likelihood of creating the business, the career or the life they most want.