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Getting the strategic vs. tactical balance right

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY One thing senior leaders can have a hard time doing is learning to let go.

In other words, they operate in their new job just as they have in their old job, and typically to poor effect. By contrast, good leaders learn to step back even when it means giving up what they enjoy doing.

One senior executive I had the opportunity to work with excelled at negotiating contracts. But as he moved up the ranks, he soon realized he did not have time for this task and so handed it off to others. He learned to manage in a manner appropriate to his level.

We call that managing strategically, and while it sounds exciting and exactly what senior managers want to do, for many people the transition from tactical to strategic decision-making is daunting. In my conversations with executives, I have discovered two reasons for this.

The first is fear. You get promoted up the ladder because you are good at what you do, be it accounting, logistics, marketing, or engineering. When you move into management, you must learn to step back from this competency -- that's scary. You hand off more than doing. You worry that others may not be able to do the job as well as you can. Some managers make the transition easily enough, but not all. And so fear sets in. You feel that you are not contributing.

The second reason for the discomfort is energy. Individual contributors can take great pride in getting things done, either by themselves or together with their teams. Working tactically, you get the satisfaction of "ticking off the boxes" every day or every week that show you got your work done. Satisfaction derives from completing the job on time and doing it well.

But as a more senior manager, your time frames are much longer. You have delegated tactical responsibilities to others, and while they may complete their tasks regularly, ultimate success may not come for months or even years. Maintaining a feeling of momentum is more difficult.

In my experience, learning to derive energy from the work of others will help negate any feelings of insecurity that emerge from not doing the work yourself. So how to do this?

Adopt the 80/20 rule. A senior executive I know advises his lead team to spent 80 percent of their time looking ahead and 20 percent on day-to-day issues. Applying this ratio is not always easy, but it does provide a framework for disengaging from daily activities. More important, when the senior executive adopts this perspective, it makes it easier for others to do so.

Spend your strategic time wisely. Devote the time you once spent on tactics on thinking longer term. Figure out what you must do to fulfill your strategic intentions. Very often this will call for planning, such as finding ways to get more resources to your team. It also calls for more right-brain thinking, finding ways to do things differently and to allow your people to work more creatively.

Of course, there will be times when senior leaders need to move to the front lines. This mostly occurs when things go wrong or when a crisis arises. Moving to the front means getting information from the people who are directly impacted, which could be customers who are adversely affected and the employees who must fix the problem. Using such information, the senior exec can make decisions and then delegate.

Getting the strategic vs. tactical balance correct is hard, but with experience comes a feeling of security and comfort knowing that you are doing what your organization needs you to do.

Image from Flickr user birgerking

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