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Why finding strategic thinkers is essential to business growth

Imagine this. You’ve been working in your industry for at least ten years. You know your customers inside out and there’s a problem that your company isn’t solving. Spotting the opportunity, you leave and set up your own business. Your industry knowledge helps you to mine a rich economic seam. 

This is the story of most of the entrepreneurs we work with.  They’re not Silicon Valley stereotypes – people in their twenties working out of a garage.  Instead, they’re in their mid-forties and find the early, start-up years heady and exciting. 

But crucially, those early years don’t involve a huge amount of strategic thinking. The first service or product is obvious to them and the challenge is more around execution. Then something changes.  Perhaps there’s a shift in the market or a need for a different offering. That’s when a lack of ideas is a real issue.

If you can relate to this, take action. To grow your business, you need a balanced mix of skills in your Executive Team.  Otherwise, there’s a danger you’ll get stuck in a growth trap.

Working out the strengths of your team

Firstly, you need to get to grips with the mix of skills you currently have.  We suggest our clients use two personality profiling tools, Working Genius from the Table Group and Gallup’s CliftonStrengths.  Working Genius will give a great overview of where your current team sit.  It divides work into three distinct areas, ‘Ideation’, ‘Activation’ and ‘Implementation’ and the six Geniuses sit under these headings.  CliftonStrengths gives a more detailed, unique picture and is great at providing a vocabulary for individual coaching conversations.

A quarter of the strengths in the Gallup survey are around strategic thinking. That’s because these skills are important.  People with strategic ability can look at the stars and see a picture – it’s a natural, innate gift.  If they have ‘Invention’ as a Working Genius, they will happily come up with lots of ideas to solve problems. Then the members of your team with ‘Discernment’ as their genius can sift through them to find the nuggets of gold. 

Finding spikey people

Strategic thinking

By using these tools, you’re building self-awareness and knowledge in your team.  And knowledge is power. 

Here’s an interesting example.  When we ran a Working Genius session with one of the Executive Teams that we coach, the CFO had the highest score for Invention in the room.  The Chief Financial Officer!  They hadn’t seen that coming. And you saw it playing out in our sessions. He would say, ‘I think we’re in the weeds here.  Can we make this discussion more strategic?’ He felt happiest working at 35,000 feet – pretty common for people with ‘Invention’.

Because we’d done Working Genius the previous day, people could now see, understand and appreciate his genius.  He found this refreshing.  Afterwards, he told me he left his last company for precisely this reason.  They felt threatened by his strategic observations and told him to stick to the figures. They hadn’t hired him to think! So he had to leave. 

Every member of your team should be allowed to do the things they’re naturally gifted at. You don’t want a team of rounded, Jacks-of-all-trades. You want spikey people, with a genius they can play to and others can magnify.  That’s why teamwork’s so efficient.  If you were a football coach, you wouldn’t take to the field with 11 strikers.  You’d create a formation that puts each player in their most vital position. 

Avoiding guilt and judgement

Working Genius makes CEOs think more fully about potential issues in their team.  It’s one of the reasons I rate it.  Guilt and judgement are two such issues.

Let’s imagine you’re a Sales Director with the geniuses of ‘Enablement’ and ‘Tenacity’.  These are all great qualities that have got you to where you are today.  But then your company needs to change the sales or compensation plan.  Maybe the business needs a new, go-to-market strategy.  Suddenly, you’re paralysed and unable to move forwards.  How does that make you feel?

Without awareness, scenarios like this can lead to feelings of guilt and judgement from the rest of the team.  If you believe, as Sales Director, you should be able to come up with a new strategy, you’re going to feel threatened and vulnerable.  And if your colleagues think the same, it can make matters a hundred times worse.  Yet ‘Invention’ is not your genius.  If you’re not wired that way, it’s never going to happen.

Other team members with  ‘Invention’ and ‘Galvanise’ should support the Sales Director in this situation.  Silos need to be broken down and the Sales Director should be humble enough to accept help.

One other thing on this topic.  Watch out for procrastination.  It’s a classic sign of imposter syndrome at work.  Someone on the Executive Team agrees to take a task and, a quarter later, there’s no progress.  It means they’re out of their comfort zone.

Contextual success in recruitment

As CEO, get clear on the context that surrounds your recruitmentLearn from my experience.  I’ve taken on people in the past who haven’t worked out.  It wasn’t because they weren’t talented.  It was because they didn’t have what I needed in the role at that precise point in time.

Early on at Rackspace UK, I hired a guy.  He had a great pedigree – a track record of stratospheric success at a larger company in our industry. But here’s the thing about big companies. If you can chew gum and tie your shoelaces, you can drop into a sales job and be successful. Dell always springs to mind because we worked with them as partners. Everything was mapped out at Dell. They didn’t expect you to rewrite the playbook – or even deviate from it.  

So, my new hire was an execution guy. I’m sure he was brilliant at it. But I needed a builder.

I often mention this to clients. Say we’re working with a start-up and they’re looking for a Sales Director.  The processes are uncertain or even non-existent. So they need a specific type of person. During the interview, they need to say, ‘This role involves building a new sales team to bring in £10m of gross profit. How would you do that?’ 9 out of 10 applicants will shrug and reply, ‘No idea.’  But 1 in 10, will be fizzing with ideas.  There it is, right there in front of them.  Invention!  That’s what they’re looking for. 

Look outside for strategic thinking

If you’re lacking ideation skills in your Executive team, you may need to look outside – particularly if you want to develop new products or service offerings.

A customer sounding board can be useful. It’s a good way to find out which customer jobs need to be done, translating any unmet needs and taking them back to your Executive team. Bring a group of customers together to tap their brains every quarter. Consultancies can also help with this. 

One of our longest client relationships is with Macquarie Telecom in Australia. Pre-covid, they would do an annual study trip to the UK. A few months before, they’d get on the phone to me and say, ‘Dom, can you help us? Our biggest strategic issue is x or y. Can you find us 20 companies in the UK that have solved this issue and arrange for us to meet them?’  I did this several times, facilitating workshops where these companies were interrogated for five days. We’d then meet at the weekend to go through the discussions and pull out the nuggets of ideas.  These could be worth $10 million or more if implemented successfully in Australia.

Be maniacal about employee quality

A footnote to this blog comes after reading Jim Collins’ latest book, ‘Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0’.  He’s concluded that great businesses need to be maniacal about employee quality.  It’s the single biggest thing that will make the most difference to your business.

Use Working Genius and Gallup’s Clifton Strengths in your recruitment process.  Get clear on the types of people you need for the context you’re in. Actively screen for strategic thinking skills.  And relentlessly focus on talent assessment, increasing the percentage of A-Players in your business over time.  This is how you grow your business.

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here.

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