Strategic Thinking or Je ne sais quoi?

In the hundreds of succession and talent reviews I’ve facilitated in my career, I’ve noticed a pervasive pattern: the use of “strategic thinking” as criteria for upward mobility. On its surface, this seems fair and reasonable. 

But when you dig a little deeper it can be incredibly problematic. It can far too easily become the “I know it when I see it” sort of quality if an organization is not careful. 


First of all, it’s an incredibly broad concept. Receiving feedback to “improve strategic thinking” is akin to being told by a dietician to “eat healthier” with no additional guidance. The second problem is that it’s subjective. Far too often the definitions of “strategic thinking” equals the number of leaders assessing it. 

We need to be more precise if we want to give actionable feedback to our employees, we cannot allow “strategic thinking” to become the “Je ne sais quoi” factor for upward mobility. 

Personally, I’ve found it helpful to break this term down into three specific categories:

STRATEGIC THINKING is thinking a number of steps ahead. This allows you to anticipate roadblocks, make adjustments, and see opportunities with enough time to act on them.

(This is what your talent probably believes you mean by “strategic thinking.”) 

STRATEGIC SPEAKING is knowing who needs to hear your message. Who will be in the meeting, and what do they need to hear? 

In my experience, this is what many employers actually mean when they say “strategic thinking” in the context of a talent review. They want the talent to improve their communication, to share their strategic thinking with crispness, clarity and confidence. 

STRATEGIC STAKEHOLDER MANAGEMENT is, at the surface, what we might call “politics.” But on a deeper level, it’s understanding who may be impacted by your work. It’s proactively addressing your audience’s anxieties, and building up their confidence in you. 

A good stakeholder manager understands that her work doesn’t always speak for itself. Her audience may also need reassurance and acknowledgement in order to buy in. She knows how to fulfill this need in order to get them on board.

Oftentimes talent will hear about “strategic thinking” and think they need to double down on creating more strategy, more project plans, more more more. They may feel frustrated, as though you haven’t noticed or appreciated their already-considerable skill in this regard.

But if you acknowledge their strategic thinking while giving feedback on strategic speaking and stakeholder management, you’ll give them the tools to deploy their intelligence and skill more effectively. 

Don’t let vague critiques alienate your top talent. Be specific, and give credit where credit is due.