How to Ask a Subordinate to Be More Strategic

4 min read

Many clients of the leadership development company I cofounded are trying to chip away at their dysfunctional “stay in your lane” corporate cultures. One typical approach is to ask functional leaders to be more strategic. There are ways to make the request so that it begets a productive response.

Asking your direct report to be more strategic can easily be interpreted in two ways: (1) defensive and (2) insulted.

A defensive reaction by the head of human resources is, “We all know that the core to achieve our mission is talent. What my team does is strategic. How dare you imply that what we do is not strategic?” The heads of sales, engineering, and manufacturing can also make compelling arguments using similar rationales.

A second interpretation is to be insulted. “I have an MBA from a distinguished university. And you tell me I can’t think strategically??!!” Another version: “You are correct. My formal education did not include corporate strategy. Do you want me to be more strategic? Put your money where your mouth is: Invest $75K for me to enroll in a distinguished university’s advanced management program. I will then have the tools to think strategically.”

“I Want You to Think Like a CEO and Like the Head of a Critical Function.”

We suggest an alternative framework that avoids the use of the emotionally-laden word “strategic.” For example: “You have proven yourself to be an outstanding functional leader who views the world through your critical functional perspective.That’s great. Keep it up. As part of your career growth, I now also want you to show me you can also view the world through a CEO’s perspective. The more you can do that, the more valuable you will be.”

What Does “Thinking Like a CEO” Mean?

The former CEO of Procter & Gamble, A. G. Lafley, wrote in a 2009 perspective for Harvard Business Review called “What Only the CEO Can Do,” “The CEO is the link between the Inside that is ‘the organization,’ and the Outside of society, economy, technology, markets, and customers.” Leaders of business functions within a company have the luxury of focusing on their “lane” while ignoring outside stakeholders. CEOs do not have this luxury. They must look inside and outside simultaneously.

Looking at Both Sides of the Basic Accounting Equation

One side of the basic accounting equation is total assets. The greater the number, the better. The other side of the equation is liabilities. The lower the number, the better. When you subtract liabilities from assets, what remains is the equity value for company investors.

Writing in MIT Sloan Management Review (2010), we observed that only the CEO has a mandate to be sensitive to both sides of the basic accounting equation. Others in the company have the luxury of focusing on asset enhancement or liability reduction.

Thinking like a CEO means focusing on asset enhancement and liability reduction simultaneously.

“Wearing My Hat”

We have found the “wearing my hat” approach a valuable way to frame business issues that position a person as a strong functional leader who can also think like a CEO. Assume the top management team is discussing an important issue and you are the general counsel: “Wearing my general counsel hat, I would like to caution the team that there are certain legal risks. The risks aren’t great enough to justify killing the idea but are great enough that we should move with caution. Wearing my hat as someone who is sensitive to increasing market share over the next 24 months, I would say, ‘let’s do it without stepping into the gray space.’”

Notice that the technique allows the general counsel to be an advocate for her area of responsibility while simultaneously showing that she can think like a CEO.

Summary and Conclusions

Asking a team member to be more strategic may get negative reactions. We advocate removing this emotionally charged word. Thinking like a CEO has two unique characteristics. We have provided a technique that can be used so that functional leaders can be strong champions of their areas AND show that they can think like a CEO.

Leadership Essential Reads

We do not assume that the CEO of your company thinks like an ideal CEO. The model we propose may help you or your subordinate eventually become a better CEO.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours