Tactical to Strategic: Earning Respect of Senior Leadership
A role in middle management can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, or it can be a place to spend the rest of your career. And there’s nothing wrong with the latter, if it’s by choice. But if you are hoping to climb the rungs of the proverbial corporate ladder, at some point you’ll need to capture the attention and respect of the ones making those decisions: senior management.
There are multiple ways to do this, of course, and plenty of ways to misstep and capture the C-level’s attention in ways you did not intend. In our experience, this transition often requires a shift from tactical to strategic management. Let’s take a look at both:
Checkboxes. To-do lists. Detailed schedules. Welcome to the world of the tactical leader. Vital to any organization, tactical leaders are where the rubber meets the road, making sure the tasks that support company strategy get done (assuming they’re in the loop on that strategy … more on that below).
Tactical leadership involves logic, efficiency and largely shorter-term tasks. Put another way, the tactical manager is working the gas pedal and perhaps the brakes, but not doing much steering. And the pitfall, of course, is losing sight of the bigger picture. It’s very easy for tactical managers to get caught in the trees and not see the whole forest.
The strategic manager has eyes on the horizon. He or she is less focused on today’s checkboxes and more on the long-term vision of the organization. In other words, the strategic manager is looking past the to-do list for any given day and considering how it feeds the bigger picture.
Pitfalls here include losing sight of the day-to-day operations or not fully understanding whether or how they contribute to the overall mission. Strategic managers are sometimes known for embracing change for change’s sake without examining the ramifications of those changes on the daily nuts and bolts of actually getting work done. This of course is a recipe for a demoralized team.
From Tactical to Strategic
The two types of management are not mutually exclusive, of course. Many managers, especially in smaller organizations, have roles that demand both types of focus. But let’s return to that original question: If your role primarily demands tactics, how can you adopt the strategic mindset that will grow your career? A few suggestions:
- Understand the strategy: You can’t support organizational strategy if you don’t know what it is, and not all companies are great at communicating big-picture stuff down the line. If you’re not clear on the overall goals and vision of the organization, ask. Then ask again, making it clear that this knowledge will help you do your job better.
- Communicate: Make sure that the understanding of organizational strategy doesn’t stop at your desk. Just as you need a grasp of the big picture in order to be effective, so does your team. And remember that communication goes in both directions … good strategic managers tend to be very good listeners.
- Be the conduit: A middle manager can feel like the rope in a game of tug of war, being yanked this way and that by the demands of upper management and the realities of the boots-on-the-ground team. Consider it part of your job to make sure there’s a constant flow of information both upwards and downwards. In a successful scenario, front-line workers understand how their roles support overall strategy, and upper management realizes the impact of their decisions on the front lines. You are the conduit for that information flow.
- Empower: A good strategic manager (or any kind of manager, really) makes his or her team better. How? Often it’s a subtle shift from saying, “Do it this way” to asking, “How do you think we should do this?” Lead with questions, not answers, to involve your team in the decision-making process and get them thinking like strategic leaders as well.
Finally, bear in mind that as important as it is, even strategy isn’t the end-all for any organization. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Peter Drucker said famously, and there’s truth in that. Make sure that your journey embraces, and ideally enhances, the culture of your organization. The ranks of middle management are full of permanent residents who tried and failed to advance at the expense of their peers, for one. The successful strategic leader lifts others up instead of trying to climb over them.