Strategic thinking is a knowledge acquisition process that connects and involves every component and department of an organization by defining the direction of the organization, how it construes its strategy into execution, how it reassesses the organization’s direction, and then fine tuning its path.[i] Organizational leaders who seek to develop successful organizations and ultimately work towards long-term success and sustainability would benefit from adopting strategic thinking and planning skills.
Traditionally, strategic thinking and planning is allied with high level and top leadership teams with an organization.[ii] When a leader applies new thoughts, procedures, and processes to guide the persuasion of organizational members and its components towards the advancement of the organization, the leader is said to be practicing strategic thinking.[iii] Strategic thinking therefore considers the ‘now’ to be able to obtain imminent insight into the future.[iv] When a leader(s) employs activities that direct the organization towards an innovative and competitive arena in today’s internationally aggressive marketplace this includes strategic thinking. Thus, leaders who work towards finding unconventional ways to compete and provide client value are said to be practicing strategic thinking. Such leaders are able to identify exceptional approaches to provide value to their clients. Strategic thinking is more of an indefinable, methodical, and future oriented activity for leaders.[v] Leaders who are looking for ways to formulate winning strategies for their organizations must consider using strategic thinking as a vehicle.[vi]
Traditional strategic planning relies on systematic processes to ascertain who the organization is in terms of its mission, what the organization does in terms of its believes, where the organization is headed in terms of its vision, and how the organization intends to get there in terms of planning[vii] while strategic thinking centers on mental processes essential for use of information and ideas which form an organization’s prospective direction.[viii] Strategic thinking makes available input for the strategic planning process through ground-breaking opportunities[ix] to enhance the organization’s performance and accomplishments. Strategic planning searches for means to create a new outline of the organization’s direction by adopting a novel and enhanced prospect.[x]
Questions Arose From the Strategic Thinking and Planning Literature
The following questions arose from the literature review based on strategic thinking and planning:
*What do you consider to be your strongest leadership qualities?
*Would you say you possess strategic leadership qualities? If so, mention a few?
*What is the vision of your organization?
*Are your staff/followers familiar with this vision?
*In what ways would you say your staff/followers are supportive of the vision?
*Have you taken part in a strategic planning process as a leader?
*If so, what time frame is adopted for the strategic planning and implementation process of your organization (monthly, quarterly, annually)?
*In your opinion, what is strategic thinking?
*Which strategic thinking and planning skills are necessary for a successful process?
*Which strategic thinking and planning tools do you use for your planning and implementation process?
*What obstacles do you consider as a hindrance to the practice and implementation of strategic thinking and planning within your organization?
*What systems do you have in place to assist you as a leader in identifying strategic thinkers within your organization?
*As a leader, do you use a strategic team? If so, how do you choose your team members?
*What would you consider as your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
*What strategies do you rely on to combat perceived weaknesses and threats to/within your organization?
*What specific tools do you rely on to determine the progress and growth of your organization?
*Please mention and explain 5 trends you perceive as having the potential to impact the long-term performance and success of your organization?
The first leader I chose to meet with was Matthew S. Essieh. Matthew is the president and chief executive officer of an information technology firm called EAI Information Systems located in Beaverton, Oregon. As a visionary leader,[xi] Matthew began his company from scratch 20 years ago. The company develops and modifies software solutions to assist financial service firms in controlling their retail investment programs for superior effectiveness and productivity.
Karen Howells was the second leader I chose to interview. Karen is the president and founder of the Howell’s Group, Inc.; a consulting firm in Portland, Oregon. Karen and her business focus on bringing ‘business to life’ through an exclusive and extremely tailored approach. Karen is a great communicator, a coach and a visionary.[xii]
The third leader interviewed was John T. Goldrick, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Life at the University of Portland. John oversees all student services including admissions, financial aid, student activities, judicial affairs, international student issues, career services, the Moreau Center for Service and Leadership, residential life, campus, ministry, health services, and public safety. John is a great strategist, a visionary and a great communicator.[xiii]
Responses from Leaders
What do you consider to be your strongest leadership qualities?
According to Matthew Essieh, his strongest leadership qualities include initiative and drive. Matthew reported he is driven internally; action oriented, allows other to follow, develops creative solutions to solve problems, and does not allow perceived problems to stand in his way. Karen Howells mentioned she connects quickly and authentically with clients, has the ability to motivate and influence others to get things done, is able to articulate a vision and inspires others to perform. John Goldrick loves to lead change, manages his employees well, has good intuition when hiring, has experience, works to keep his followers in the spotlight, and considers himself to be allocentric; more follower-centered than leader-centered. John stated he does not look for conflict, but at the same time, does not shy away from it.
Would you say you possess strategic leadership qualities? If so, mention a few?
Each leader I interviewed believes they possess strategic leadership qualities. According to Matthew Essieh, the fact that he founded his company 20 years ago is a sign of possessing strategic leadership qualities. He stated he focuses on broader decision-making without being ‘bogged’ down by details or initiatives. Therefore, he focuses on the broader positive implications of what has to be done. According Matthew, he has always had the vision to own businesses in the United States and he has achieved that vision. Karen Howells’ feels she is able to scan the social and economic environment in order to be in touch with her clients, is pragmatic in her operations, intentionally keeps her business small, and has the ability to listen to client’s and team members’ needs and concerns. John approached the issue of possessing strategic leadership qualities quite differently. According to John, he considers the ‘what, why and when’ with regards to a planning point of view. John also mentioned he relies on assessment tools prior to the implementation of any plan. Therefore, the assessment process assists him in determining whether the move is strategic or not.
What is the vision of your organization?
Regarding the vision of the organization, Matthew Essieh stated his vision is, “To be the leader in providing financial services technology and responsive services to clients.” Karen Howells envisions her organization to be one of the strongest regional players. She also believes it takes leaders and organizations to the next level of success, does not work with failing organizations, and remains a ‘boutique firm’ that customizes its services to meet the needs of clients. According to John Goldrick, University of Portland’s vision is to be the best Catholic teaching university in the western United States focusing on faculty who are abreast in research and publication.
Are your staff/followers familiar with this vision?
Each of the leaders I interviewed stated their followers were familiar with the vision of the organization. According to Matthew, his staff believes in the vision because they live by it every day. “My followers understand that everything is client centered and has to be approached as a strategic partnership with clients,” said Karen Howells. Karen stated she knows her followers have bought into the vision because they often refer her to other clients. John Goldrick strongly believes his followers are familiar with the vision because he seldom discusses issues without relating it to the vision of the university. He also added it is an expectation he has of his followers and is incorporated into how they execute their work on a daily basis.
In what ways would you say your staff/followers are supportive of the vision?
According to Matthew, he reported his follower’s exhibit support for the vision of the organization through the work they do each day by providing innovative technology and responsive services to their customers. He mentioned the vision drives his employees to develop quality products for their clients. Karen Howells stated an emphatic “yes” as evidence of the fact her staff are supportive of the vision of the organization. John Goldrick stated his follower’s support of the vision of the organization and this is reinforced through annual retreats and full day discussions. According to him, his followers also provide regular feedback on the administration by highlighting the positives and negatives.
Have you taken part in a strategic planning process as a leader?
Matthew stated he and the organization has taken part in a strategic planning process and will participate in the process again this year. “Absolutely”, Karen Howells stated when asked whether she has ever taken part in a strategic planning process. According to Karen, she leads a lot of strategic planning session with her clients, as well as, with the staff in her business. John Goldrick stated he has taken part of numerous strategic planning sessions for the university during of fourteen years that he has been there. However, John stated the university does not typically put it into practice and this often results in frustration on the part of the followers. He mentioned the university put together a strategic plan, but it was not used because the goals and objectives were too many. John feels there are many problems associated with strategic plans. First, he thinks strategic plans are not fluent with the total needs of an existing organization. Second, strategic plans are usually not structured to operate as a living document and third, he believes the tasks provided in the strategic plan are usually in conflict with strategic thinking. Thus, he recommends fewer goals, objectives, and tasks should be incorporated into a strategic plan in order to make it more applicable to the specific departments at the university.
If so, what time frame is adopted for the strategic planning and implementation process of your organization (monthly, quarterly, annually)?
According to Matthew, his organization adopts the annual approach to the strategic planning process. He stated his organization revisits the plan annually. Karen Howells reported her firm adopts the semi-annual approach for the strategic planning process. According to Karen, she holds annual meetings with her followers to review the past year as part of their strategic planning process. According to John Goldrick, the University of Portland used to develop a strategic plan every 10 years, but now the school utilizes a five-year approach. He stated this is driven by the academic accreditation board regulations.
In your opinion, what is strategic thinking?
When asked to give his opinion on what he considered as strategic thinking, Matthew stated that he considers “strategic thinking to be the day-to-day operational type of thinking.” He also mentioned it is the process of stepping back and looking at the broader purpose and direction of the organization. Furthermore, he stated strategic thinking includes deliverables and the implementation of a strategic plan to achieve goals, objectives and the purpose of the organization. Matthew gave an example of opening up a new office in Accra, Ghana with a vision to reach out to the West African Sub-region as a form of strategic thinking. According to Karen Howells, a leader’s ability to walk onto a balcony to gain a better view of things in terms of social, economic and political issues determines whether he or she is a strategic thinker. Karen gave an example of a client who is using the current health bill to his advantage, and at the same time, helping others. Karen stated a strategic thinker considers how things fit both inside and outside of the organization to determine what actions need to be taken. “Such leaders strive to be ahead of the game,” Karen remarked. For John Goldrick strategic thinking comes into perspective when a leader considers the ‘why’ and not the ‘what’. Thus, the leader considers why the organization is doing what it has set out to do and asks if it is taking the appropriate path.
Which strategic thinking and planning skills are necessary for a successful process?
With regards to strategic thinking and planning skills necessary for a successful process, Matthew stated as the CEO of the organization, he considers the direction of a proposed product, what competitors are offering and whether the product will be successful within the next three years. He also mentioned he works in collaboration with his project manager who skills assist in product development. The project manager assists in determining the sustainability and success of the product and the costs involved. Karen Howells mentioned the following skills as necessary for a successful strategic thinking and planning process. For strategic thinking, the leader must be able to look ahead and envision the organization by utilizing different approaches. She also mentioned a strategic leader must know the market in which he or she operates in. For strategic planning to take place, Karen mentioned the leaders must seek to engage the entire organization in the process. According to Karen, she believes funneling, environmental scan, and annual planning sessions can facilitate a successful process. John Goldrick stated no planning process works if it originates from the top. Therefore, he listens to his followers and adopts an all inclusive process of planning. Trust, honesty, and openness are key to a strategic thinking and planning process. He stated leaders who are not open and do not listen develop ineffective plans.
Which strategic thinking and planning tools do you use for your planning and implementation process?
Matthew stated he uses individual people as tools for the planning and implementation process. He reported he relies on key players and stakeholders within his organization such as board members, staff members, and clients. He also reported he creates a culture of strategic thinking and planning to be used as a tool for the implementation process. According to Karen, she uses the ‘sticky wall’ idea as a tool during the strategic thinking and planning process. During this process, participants are encouraged to write their personal vision, mission, goals, objectives, and ideas, as well as, that of the organization. Karen then uses the data collected for the planning and implementation process. Karen also mentioned brainstorming and funneling as effective tools for the strategic thinking and planning process. John Goldrick stressed the use of communication as a dynamic tool for the strategic thinking and planning process. He suggested leaders adopt a discussion and explanation strategy when thinking and planning with their followers. Promulgation of information is key for a successful planning and thinking process, John Goldrick said.
What obstacles do you consider as a hindrance to the practice and implementation of strategic thinking and planning within your organization?
When the organizational culture is not open and receptive to strategic thinking and planning processes, its practice and implementation becomes an issue for leadership and followers, Matthew remarked. According to him, when followers are not invested in the overall success of the organization it becomes difficult for leadership to implement strategic thinking within the organization. Followers not just interest in their paycheck can be a huge success for this process. Karen stated the size of her organization is often a hindrance to strategic thinking and planning. She also mentioned a lack of energy because of other life circumstances have been a barrier to strategically thinking and planning for the organization’s progress and growth. John Goldrick mentioned a lack of creativity, a fear of change, apprehension towards taking risks, a fear of making mistakes, the inability to lack failure and a refusal to undertake true assessment of the situation can be huge hindrances to the strategic thinking and planning process.
What systems do you have in place to assist you as a leader in identifying strategic thinkers within your organization?
According to Matthew, he identifies strategic thinkers by providing followers with the opportunity to lead a software development project. He also creates small and ad hoc teams for individual followers to be given the opportunity to solve problems and develop new ideas. Karen relies on team members to assist in the strategic thinking process and therefore identifies who excels in such an area. She also works towards identifying potential employees and places them on short-term projects to allow her to observe and confirm they possess strategic thinking skills. John Goldrick, on the other hand, does not consider this process as a system. According to him, it is more of an appraisal process which he undertakes once a year with his followers to identify strengths and weaknesses. After this process, “I am able to identify strategic thinkers,” John said. However, he stated it is a difficult process to undertake with university administrators.
As a leader, do you use a strategic team? If so, how do you choose your team members?
Matthew reported he uses strategic leadership teams within specific departments. Karen Howells uses a team of consultants as her strategic leadership team. According to Karen, when the need arises she utilizes other individuals from other organizations who possess the skills needed. According to John Goldrick, his strategic leadership team comprises of his staff which is made up of fourteen departmental heads. He reported the team meets for two hours every two weeks to deliberate on issues concerning the university. He stated, “I could not function without the team,” John said. He reported such collaboration allows us to work towards a common goal he concluded.
What would you consider as your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
Matthew mentioned his organization possesses the following strengths. It is responsive to clients’ needs, flexible to solve client needs, relies on client needs to define its problems and adapts to client needs. He felt the organization had the following weaknesses: unrealistic client expectations and the lack of stability of a product. Matthew stated his organization is flexible and responsive and therefore this can be seen as an opportunity. The inability to meet customer expectations, a threat to credibility and the potential to lose customers are seen as threats, according the Matthew.
According to Karen, the individual clients the organization works with and the reputation of her team members are seen as strengths. As a leader, Karen stated her inability to clearly see the future is a weakness. Karen reported she has not been in good health over the past year and therefore does not have a committed direction for the organization and as a result has not marketed her services as readily as in recent years.
John Goldrick stated the strengths of the University of Portland is that it is a Catholic University and University of Portland is aware of what it wants. The University of Portland lacks self-confidence and therefore this is seen as a weakness. However, he sees opportunities in the horizon as individuals are beginning to recognize the identity of the institution. He foresees secularization and narcissism of the American society, the growing need for instant gratification, and the delayed enjoyment in higher education as threats to the welfare of the institution.
What strategies do you rely on to combat perceived weaknesses and threats to/within your organization?
Clear communication of customers’ expectations; internally enforcing flexibility, responsiveness to customer needs, and communication among leaders and followers; and ongoing training and accountability are strategies that Matthew utilizes to combat perceived weaknesses and threats to his organization. Karen uses change initiatives and time-lines to combat weaknesses and threats within her organization. John employs open communication; a collective approach to leadership; and endless conversation around the vision, mission, goals and objectives of the institution to combat weaknesses and threats.
What specific tools do you rely on to determine the progress and growth of your organization?
In determining the progress and growth of the his organization, Matthew keeps close accounts of sales figures, the measurement of profitability, client retention, cost management and the measurement of growth and retention of staff. According to Karen, she considers ‘how full the pipeline is,’ how may referrals the firm receives, and the level revenue for the firm. John presented a different approach to determining the progress and growth of his organization. According to John, he uses assessment tools and performance appraisals and reviews on a regular basis.
Please mention and explain 5 trends you perceive as having the potential to impact the long-term performance and success of your organization?
According to Matthew, the contraction and expansion of the financial services industry, mergers and acquisitions within the industry and the changing pace of technology and staying abreast of such changes are potential trends that may affect his organization. He also mentioned the workforce in the United States over the most recent years has not seen enough individuals being trained within the information technology industry. Therefore there is a limited workforce to tap into. He also stated the cost of labor and current privacy laws and regulations regarding sensitive data may also have an adverse affect on his organization in the near future. Karen believes the following trends will impact her organization’s performance and success over the course of time: clients’ desire for instant gratification, organizational fatigue and overload, and competition from competitors. Karen also mentioned the emergence and growth of small businesses can have a huge impact on her organization. Karen believes the current generation of young people, will have a significant impact on her company. John had similar views with Karen. John perceives secularization, narcissism, instant gratification and federal government regulations will impact the performance and success of the University of Portland.
The leaders in this interview were carefully selected as a result of my interests and practice in consulting and higher education. The questions were carefully crafted to elicit the needed information from the selected leaders regarding what they considered as their strengths as leaders and in the area of strategic thinking and planning. Interestingly the three leaders had similar views though operate in different industries. Their views regarding trends that will impact the future of their organization are proof of their ability to think and plan strategically in order to run successful organizations. All three leaders provided great examples of visionary leadership and they brought strategic thinking and planning to life. It is therefore in the good interest of organizational leaders to research and practice strategic thinking and planning principles. Leaders who lack the ability to think and plan strategically must rely on internal and external consultants[xiv] who will facilitate the process of imparting the needed knowledge, skills and expertise for a successful operation. Such leaders can take steps to build a resource base of materials centered on strategic thinking and planning for their organizations for the use of their followers in order to develop a culture of strategic thinking and planning in their organizations.
[i] Hughes, R. & Beatty, K.C (2005). Becoming a Strategic Leader: Your Role in Your Organization’s Enduring Success. Jossey- Boss, San- Francisco, CA.
[ii] Fairholm, M. & Card, M. (2009). Perspectives of Strategic Thinking: From Controlling Chaos to Embracing it. Journal of Management. 15(1), 17-30.
[iii] Hughes, R. & Beatty,K.C (2005). Becoming a Strategic Leader: Your Role in Your Organization’s Enduring Success. Jossey- Boss, San- Francisco, CA.
[iv] Sanders, I. (1998). Strategic Thinking. Strategy & Leadership. 33(5), 5-12
[v] Goldman, E.F. (2007). Strategic Thinking at the Top. MITSloan Management Review. 48 (4). 75-80
[vi] Abraham, S. (2005). Stretching Strategic Thinking. Strategy & Leadership. 33(5) 5-12.
[vii] Strong, B. (2005) Strategic Planning: What’s So Strategic About It? Educase Quarterly.
[ix] Briefing Notes: What is Strategic Thinking? (Philadelphia, PA: Center for Applied Research, 200), 1.
[x] Fairholm & Card. (2009).
[xi]Jones, T. (2010). What is Your Vision? Leadership Excellence. 27(3), 6.
[xii] Robert N. Lussier, R.N. & Achua, C.F. (2007). Leadership: Theory, Application, & Skill Development: Thompson Higher Education. Mason, Ohio.
[xiii]Richardson, D. (2009). The Urgency Factor…Leadership Communication In Chaotic Times. Of Counsel. 28(8), 10-13.
[xiv] Block, P. (2000), Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used. Pfeiffer, San Francisco, CA. 5.
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