Being strategic is critical for effective leadership

Posted by Diana Thomas on Mar 28, 2017 6:00:00 AM


Helping our training leaders grow and be more successful is a passion of mine.

One of the things that have made my time with CLO Accelerator so rewarding has been getting to empower students taking the Module 2 course I lead to look more strategically at their role as learning leaders.

Former participants have shared that the course made them take a step back and view their work as CLO more holistically. Others have said embracing a more strategic perspective has improved their confidence as they’ve considered a role change or looked for new opportunities for growth and advancement.

I love hearing these comments.  

Throughout my career, executives have described mid- to lower level staff as “not seeing the big picture,” or as “too tactical; not strategic.” But not being strategic is one of the biggest opportunities for leaders — especially leaders who have been great doers/individual contributors, have grown up through the ranks, or are new millennial leaders.


How does one become strategic? What does strategic look like? There are specific behaviors that need to be exhibited and incorporated into one’s own actions. Then, through practice and by receiving positive feedback and reinforcement, those strategic actions and behaviors become natural attributes. Only then will others perceive that person as strategic.

Great leaders help aspiring managers (the company’s leaders in training) to see the big picture. It’s easier to see the big picture the higher you move up in the organization. The conversations you have are at a higher level; the things you read are more applicable to the entire organization vs. having a more narrow focus on a specific area of responsibility. And, new leaders benefit from broader exposure to people who already think big picture.

The 3 key traits to being a strategic leader

Based on my 25 years’ experience with many successful leaders, I have identified three key actions and behaviors that distinguish someone as a strategic leader.

  1. See the big picture. 

Strategic leaders truly understand the big picture and the company vision and purpose. Leaders regularly talk about it and ensure their staff understands how the team’s work aligns with it. As a result, individual members, and the team overall, are more engaged and productive.

When I led a large training team, my team consistently agreed it was vital to understand how your work positively impacts the company’s vision and strategic plan. Use the company’s vision to help ensure the team’s work stays perfectly aligned. When employees have a clear understanding of how their work impacts the larger company, it is much easier for them, and for leaders, to determine the most important work upon which to focus.

The CEO of McDonald’s Corp. provided me with one of the best examples of strategic leadership. He consistently referred to the McDonald’s vision — “being our customer’s favorite place and way to eat and drink” — in every presentation. He also consistently tied in our top three strategic priorities. The executives who thrived under his leadership knew that when they met with him to solicit support, they had to clearly articulate how the project aligned with the overall company vision and priorities.

  1. Be aware of trends inside and outside of your company.

Today there is so much information available and easily accessible about a company, its industry and competitors.

Regularly read your company’s website and other industry literature. Have you read your annual report? Your company’s and competitors’ customer satisfaction ratings? Are you as educated about your company as the average consumer? I guarantee you will be surprised and enlightened with the available industry knowledge to learn from.

Devote time to reading important news about your company once a week, if not daily. This will keep you relevant and build your big-picture thinking. Share it with others to help educate those around you, and to shape future strategies and actions. Strategic leaders help build employee skills through these kinds of dialogues. They also learn more about their team along the way. High performers and leaders-in-training will welcome these developmental exchanges, whereas lower performers and those with little leadership potential will not.

  1. Regularly make time for strategic thinking. 

Strategic leaders regularly schedule time to envision the future and think longer term. The best way to do this is to step back from the whirlwind of things going on and just think. It’s especially important to think through the consequences of your decisions.

Only by focusing your thoughts can you continue to ensure a strong connection to your stakeholders and the core of your business or mission as the environment changes, ensure your team is achieving the desired results and necessary impact on the organization, and confidently adjust as needed.


With the right mentoring and coaching, leaders can learn to incorporate behaviors that significantly improve their ability to be strategic.

Finding extra time to just think seems impossible for busy executives with already too-full plates. But this is something that sets the most successful leaders apart — successful CEOs make the time to reflect and think strategically.

If you are interested in learning more and taking your strategic leadership to the next level, as well as joining a group of leaders who can be part of your development network, I encourage you to download the CLO Accelerator Course Overview and check out our program details and registration.

If you have additional questions about the CLO Accelerator or want to know if it’s right for you, please reach out to me at I’d be delighted to tell you more.

Diana Thomas is an executive coach, advisor and former vice president of learning and development for McDonald’s Corp.




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