The ability to think strategically is one of those essential components a well-rounded businessperson should have in his arsenal. It has direct implications on an organization’s future growth and present productivity, but it’s not easy to teach. Further, strategy can’t be taught singularly. It must accompany a solid foundation of business and financial acumen, on-the-job training and a broad view of the organization, industry and its competitors. Or so the experts say.
“The interesting thing about strategy, it’s something we expect our business and our executives to have,” said Ginny Ertl, vice president of training and development, GE Consumer Finance. “Everyone we are developing into the future leaders of our company, the expectation is they will have what we call strategic skills. There are several aspects to it. There is the strategic process, and there are tools for strategy. I believe those things can be taught. What gets tougher is the ability to think strategically, and the reason why this is so challenging is it’s at the top end of the whole taxonomy of learning.”
Ertl refers to Bloom’s Taxonomy and something called synthesis, which is found in the upper levels of learning. Synthesis is an individual’s ability to take information and data from many different places, and put it all together to form a conclusion or position, or to make a decision. “This is very important right now because there’s so much information and data coming at us that we have to take in. How do we make sure that people are doing it, doing it accurately and have the ability to do it? That is the harder piece of strategy to actually teach,” Ertl said. “You can develop that certainly through experience, and I believe we could actually move the needle in terms of formal classroom training, but I don’t believe you can accomplish all that you need to in formal classroom training. It plays a part, but there are other developmental opportunities that hone strategic thinking skills.”
These developmental opportunities typically occur on the job in stretch assignments and other strategically motivated duties or programs that encourage a broad, long-term or inclusive mindset, rather than a tactical one. “We’re in a very results-oriented environment today,” Ertl said. “It’s very easy for individuals to get into tactical mode. We have to step away and think not only about what we need to accomplish within the year, but have that broader view of two years, three and so forth. We have to take in all the information around us—not only what’s happening within our company, but what’s happening in our markets and with our competitors.”
Pat M. Crull, Ph.D., vice president and chief learning officer for TIAA-CREF, agrees that strategy can be taught. The difficulty lies in learner receptivity. “Of course you can teach strategy, but there are some who are more initially receptive than others,” Crull said. “There are some who will learn it faster, some who will like it, enjoy it, savor it and see the wisdom of it faster than others, but I do believe you can teach strategy. We do it all the time because it’s one of the competencies that leaders need as they progress in the hierarchy of an organization. It’s not easy, but it can be taught.”
“One of my observations over the years is that business constantly puts pressure on managers and supervisors to think strategically, but we reward them for being daily crisis managers and short-term thinkers,” said Jim Brolley, director of organizational learning and development for Harley-Davidson. “Once you value and reward strategic business planning and thinking and have a supportive culture, it’s a matter of providing the foundation skills required for a job, linking them to strategic thinking. The work becomes the vehicle of learning, a learning lab. Folks are always going to vary in their ability just like presentation skills or design engineering. The really good ones will rise to the top in short order given the opportunity.”
Crull points out there are a number of strategy programs offered by top business schools, but like Brolley, she said that for strategic skills to take root, learners must have a base of other competencies or other skills. “The individual has to have good financial acumen. They have got to be well-grounded in the business, and by that I mean not only the business of the company, but of the industry,” Crull said. “They have to have a good understanding of the direction that the company is going and understand how what they are doing is valued, appreciated and fits into the direction that the company is going. Then I think you can use a variety of modalities to teach strategy, whether it’s case studies, action learning—which I think is particularly effective—peer coaching or mentoring. It would be an impossible task if we tried to teach it in isolation.”
Crull added that it’s imperative for senior learning executives to be strategic if they are to effectively lead the learning function in their organizations. “If senior learning executives are not strategic, they become order-takers. The learning function becomes ‘a support function’ rather than a part of the business imperative, and that’s too often the reason why when the going gets tough, learning falls by the wayside,” Crull said. “If you really are positioned as part of the strategy necessary for the success of the business, then that doesn’t happen.”