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4 Small Steps to Becoming a Big Picture Thinker

Get to know your employees because the more you know about them, the better you can develop their talents and begin to think strategically about their roles. 

4 Small Steps to Becoming a Big Picture Thinker

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds at work. From 9 to 5, many of us skitter from meeting to meeting. We send text messages while answering emails, and we return phone calls while filling out paperwork. Being heads down has its place, but the downside is we may forget to look up—to take time for strategic thinking.   

Seeing the big picture

Executive management consultants like Paul Butler, co-author of Think to Win: Unleashing the Power of Strategic Thinking, define this core leadership skill as “being able to open your mind in a way that you can access, question and determine what is most important. Once you do that, you’re able to solve problems of any scale,” he adds.

Thinking strategically means gathering information and using that information to make good decisions, a skill that can propel your career and your organization forward.

In a highly competitive business marketplace where only the innovative thrive, “it’s really critical for organizations to have a forward-thinking mindset,” says Michele Britton, director of strategic planning for the Society of Human Resource Management. “You really have to understand how the organization can foster innovation and create a competitive advantage,” says Britton. 

Your career takes off

Likewise, time spent thinking strategically about achieving your professional goals can be like strapping a rocket booster to your career trajectory. Butler says it means delving into a series of questions: What’s the job market like? What are the companies like? Who’s hiring? What’s trending? Thinking strategically during a job hunt also means putting yourself in recruiters’ shoes, says Paul Schoemaker, co-author of Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future and research director of Wharton’s Mack Institute.

So, how can you empower yourself to step back, look at the big picture and think strategically, not only for your career, but for your employer?

Here are four steps: 

Stand out in the crowd.

Hiring managers know too well the sea of sameness when it comes to resumes. “The people reading all these resumes are probably bored stiff reading the same stuff over and over. So how do you add spice? Applicants are so afraid of being turned down, they don’t take any risks. They don’t make their resumes interesting enough. They don’t highlight enough what is unique or unusual about them,” says Shoemaker. Think about the special qualities and abilities you would bring to an organization and make those stand out on your resume. Highlighting past accomplishments is important, but noting how you will translate those successes to a new job can catch a hiring manager’s attention.

Become a constant learner.

“Anyone can be a strategic thinker, but you must have an open mind,” Britton says. “It’s really important that we approach matters with this wild curiosity—to try to get to the root cause and to challenge the status quo. This gets you into a more proactive or innovative way of thinking versus being reactive, trapped or stuck in ‘this is how we’ve always done it.’”

If you’re a manager, try “managing by walking around,” Shoemaker advises. “People at the top of organizations too often become victims of [information] filtering systems, with underlings as gatekeepers.” Don’t let yourself be too controlled by your handlers, he says.” Get to know your employees because the more you know about them, the better you can develop their talents and begin to think strategically about their roles. 

Understand the story that numbers tell.

Data helps make informed decisions and is an important part of making strategic decisions. “If you work in human resources and don’t understand performance metrics or work in marketing and can’t decipher market research, getting some good financial analytical training is critical,” Butler says. “Nowadays organizations are looking for people who not only use numerical data, but can gather insights about what it’s telling them.” Those insights can lead to proactive thinking about new ideas or changes that need to be made.  

Don't get trapped in analysis paralysis

At some point, it’s time to stop gathering facts and take action. Even when you have incomplete information in an organization with diverse views, “you’ll need to take an intelligent risk,” Britton says. “You’ll need to acknowledge that some things may fail for the organization to be innovative.” In other words, learning comes from failure and, usually, is a sign that someone has made a strategic decision, which in the long run, almost always pays off for the organization’s goals and a strategic thinker’s career.