How operational leaders become strategic leaders (23 ways)

Most people have no idea how to 10X their impact because they’re already doing the best they feel they can.

They can’t work significantly harder — there aren’t enough hours in the day — and they don’t have the option to dramatically increase budget or headcount.

In a previous article, I suggested a different approach. To 10X your impact, you have to shift the leadership game you’re playing:

  • Leadership Game 1: Operations. Delivering business performance that drives results.
  • Leadership Game 2: Strategy. Creating new business capabilities that drive valuation.
  • Leadership Game 3: Impact. Effecting system-wide change that goes far beyond their organisation’s immediate reach.
3 Leadership Games Impact CEO

Each game is an order of magnitude more impactful than the previous. But how exactly do you make a shift from one to the other?

It’s not easy. Most people find it hard to shift leadership games because it requires a ‘quantum leap’ — a very different way of thinking and operating. More importantly, it requires a very different identity and way of understanding yourself, your role, and what success looks like.

In this article, we’ll look at the shift from Operational Leadership to Strategic Leadership. And in a future article, we’ll look at the shift to Impact.

I work on this all the time with my clients (either 1:1 or as part of our Impact Accelerator programme). Many of them are incredible operational leaders, who have often risen to the very top of their organisation by virtue of their ability to deliver results and be a ‘safe pair of hands’.

However, they now realise future success will require them to champion transformational change and create new capabilities to position the company in new markets. In short, they need to shift the game they’re playing if they are to advance further.

So, if you’re a strong operational leader and you want to become a strategic leader, here’s what I advise:

  1. Stop being the expert. That’s your old success formula. Remember that your new role is a driver of change.
  2. Stop needing to have all the answers, and start asking better questions. "In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." - Eric Hoffer
  3. Stop worrying about what is achievable. Come up with a bold and exciting vision, and only then get to work on how this might be accomplished.
  4. Stop thinking about what can be improved. Instead, start thinking about what is missing to achieve your vision, and create change initiatives to fit those gaps.
  5. Stop focusing on your marketing plan (or finance plan, or sales plan). Instead, have a plan for Marketing (or a plan for Finance, or a plan for Sales).
  6. Remember that the most important project is the one no-one is asking you for.
  7. Have a strategy, not a smattergy! Stop looking for what else to do; start looking for what to eliminate. "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." - Michael Porter
  8. Stop communicating all the detail, bottom-up. People get bored. Go top-down. Start with the key headline message, be prepared to back it up with 3-4 points, and be prepared to justify those points if challenged.
  9. Don’t worry about having to be right. The world will change under your feet anyway. "A strategic leader must be willing to take risks and make difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty." - Peter Drucker
  10. Let go of the need for intense, constant action (needed for success in operations). Slow down your thinking, investigate trends, and look for the key leverage points.
  11. Stop only setting SMART goals, and set some WISE, inspiring goals.
  12. Give up the comfort of control, and start empowering your team.
  13. Master strategic laziness. Take time to read, to get curious, to think about trends. "A strategic leader must have the ability to anticipate, adapt, and drive change." - John P. Kotter
  14. Lose the addiction to lag indicators. Your success as a strategic leader will only actually be known in 2-5 years.
  15. Make time for strategic thinking and high-value activity. You’ll need to fight for it.
  16. Stop maximising the performance of your own organisation. You’ll create much more value when you look at the intersections between your organisation and all the different stakeholders.
  17. Instead of trying to convince people, get curious, find out what matters to them, and bring them on side that way.
  18. Instead of solving operational problems yourself, start trusting your team.
  19. Stop telling people how to do things. Start telling them what success looks like.
  20. Stop focusing on finding star performers. Start focusing on creating a culture that gets the best out of the people you already have.
  21. Don’t intervene in individual operating decisions. Instead, focus on setting your team up for success, with an ‘ownership environment’ that encourages your team to step up.
  22. Don’t abdicate your operational responsibility. Make the “transparency bargain” with your team: “Eyes on, hands off.” Get visibility on what’s happening, but let them run the show.
  23. Worry less about “not failing”. Worry more about learning and adapting.

You don’t have to make this shift, of course. There’s nothing wrong with being a strong operational leader. But if you’re ready to 10X your impact, making the shift to the game of strategic leadership is the way forward.

You don’t need clarity or confidence to get started. You do need to be committed to a greater level of contribution, and you will need the courage to let go of whatever already works for you in order to learn new ways of leading.

For, in the words of Albert Einstein:

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

PLUS, whenever you're ready, why not hit the accelerator on your journey of exponential impact by working with us, or by picking up a copy of Making TIME For Strategy?

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