I work with a lot of mid-level managers and frontline employees who complain that they’re being told to “be more strategic.” Early on in my career, my manager (we’ll call him James) and his boss (we’ll call her Val) clashed over it.
“You’re a Director! You need to be more strategic!” she’d say.
“I am being strategic. Here’s my strategy,” he’d retort, showing his plan for the upcoming year.
“That’s too tactical. I need strategy,” Val demanded.
She’d say strategy is the long-term plan and tactic is the short-term initiative. James’ initiatives stretched across the entire year and were well thought out, so he couldn’t understand why Val categorized them as short-term initiatives. Confused and exasperated, he quit.
Your middle managers could be in the same situation. You need them to think strategically and act tactically. That is tough middle ground to navigate. It becomes our job as leaders to help them through it.
Let me share how I worked through this issue and give you some tips that you can use in your next coaching sessions with your middle managers.
I started with Google, looking up definitions. Strategy is definedas a plan of action to achieve an overall aim. Tactic is defined as an action carefully planned to achieve a specific end. Butterms like “overall aim” and “specific end” start to blur in practical use. Val wanted James to explain his plan in detail, but by giving specifics he was being tactical. I don’t know about you, but I read that and think, “Well, that’s confusing. Poor James.”
Other definitions include things like “strategy takes a 30,000-foot view of the plan, while tactic refers to the action on the ground.” Low-altitude tasks versus high-altitude plans. That’s all well and good for the C-suite, but the closer you get to execution, the harder it is to stand out as a strategic thinker. Your people will wonder: “How can I be strategic from the ground level?”
I made it my mission to figure out a better way to navigate that line. I wanted a clear definition and easy litmus test to know whether I was being tactical, and to help me communicate my plans from a strategic vantage. Here’s an easy, practical way to stand out as a strategic thinker:
Strategy = The things we choose to do in contrast to other options.
Tactic = The things we must do.
When your leaders are working in the business every day, the problems and solutions can be so clear that they know exactly what needs to happen. They might be taking a long-term view, being proactive and not reactionary, and aim to impact organizational KPI’s, but when presented to you or other executives, they risk sounding tactical if they promote their ideas as things we must do.
So, now you’re thinking, “Give me an example I can use to coach my leaders…”
Imagine that you are sitting down with one of your regional leaders, and you ask for their strategy on improving their region’s customer satisfaction rating. They reply with something like:
“We need to improve customer satisfaction, so we are going to follow up 48 hours after purchase to see if they have questions, share an additional feature or benefit we hadn’t previously discussed, and provide supporting resources they’ll value.”
This sounds like a clear plan of action to achieve an overall aim of improving customer satisfaction. Or are those carefully planned actions to achieve a specific end? They described things we must do. It is more of a tactic than a strategy. Damn, strategy and tactic are confusing!
Now, imagine you get them to share the plan this way:
“Yes, we need to improve customer satisfaction. I’ve considered investing in implementation and offering more customization, improving the post-purchase experience, and speeding up service recovery timelines when things go wrong. My strategy is to improve the post-purchase
experience by following up 48 hours after purchase with specific actions to curb natural buyer’s remorse and promote satisfaction with the product and brand. This is the most effective and cost-efficient way to impact customer satisfaction in our region, and it is aligned with our organizational goal of being the supplier of choice.”
Wow, that sounds much more strategic! Hearing that, you’d feel more comfortable that they had weighed out options and that they understood the impacts of any decisions that followed. All we’ve tweaked here is how we’ve defined strategy to them, but it would have a clear impact in how they present ideas back to us.
Here’s another example:
A training organization at a geographically dispersed company assigned one Training Specialist to each Regional Director. They were to serve as a strategic partner, providing guidance and access to the full library of training resources and scheduling classes. The Regional Director owns the regional strategy. Training Specialists deliver the content aligned to that strategy. The Training Specialists struggled to stand out as strategic thinkers; they were viewed as tactical resources who would respond to whatever the Regional Director needed. That needed to change so they could fulfill their role as a strategic partner.
Through coaching and applying the definitions above, the Training Specialists started creating options to choose from and explaining alternatives that were not on the table. They were able to guide the Regional Directors to the right tactics in a strategic way. Previously, if one of those specialists had heard “We need to reduce injuries,” they may have suggested having an OSHA 10 class. Instead, what the RVP got back was:
“You’re trying to reduce injuries to save costs. We could host internal OSHA 10 classes for each local team, we can send employees to externally-hosted classes, or we could do virtual sessions over the course of three days. The additional travel and cost of external classes won’t offset the costs you are trying to save. Here’s how you’ll get the best ROI…”
When it comes to communicating the best practices of strategy and tactics and helping your people navigate what you want from them, do the following:
- Share the definitions of each
- Provide examples of how they can weigh options, clearly explain their preferred choice, and outline benefits and risks
- Give them coaching and feedback until they better understand what being more strategic really means; and
- Be patient.
Your leaders have been wired to identify solutions to tactical problems for a long time. Given a little time and coaching, they will learn the best way to take a higher view of what they are doing… even when they’ve got their feet on the ground level.