Have you ever wondered if you’re a strategic thinker?
The strongest nonprofit leaders are often strategic thinkers, though we may not always see ourselves that way. Indeed, we may feel anything but strategic as we run from putting out one fire to tackling the next. But being a strategic thinker doesn’t mean sitting in an ivory tower alone with your thoughts.
Different Types of Strategic Thinkers: Which One Are You?
For nonprofit leaders, being a strategic thinker can look many ways:
- Leaders with brilliant strategic vision and singular focus. The charismatic leader is the most common picture of a strategic thinker many of us have. We may think of leaders like Steve Jobs, whose singular vision transformed not only Apple, but also our daily lives. Such charismatic leaders may be the founder of an organization or the person who stepped in and transformed a struggling nonprofit into a success story. But there are risks, such as founder’s syndrome, that come with relying solely on this type of strategic thinker.
- Leaders who create intentional and productive space for strategic thinking organization wide. According to Forbes, the latest data shows that “only 32% of full- and part-time employees are engaged, while 17% are actively disengaged.” One solution to employee engagement—which is also proven to be good for business performance—is to cultivate a culture of curiosity, innovation, and strategic thinking. Leaders who do this might not be seen as the traditional “visionary,” but their team’s performance will demonstrate just how powerful and strategic this mindset is.
- Leaders who are willing to question the status quo and take personal and professional risks. Leaders who step back and ask questions—both for their own careers and their organizations—can provide incredible inspiration. Take the CEO of Dress for Success, Michelle C. Meyer-Shipp. After reaching what could be considered the pinnacle of a business career during the pandemic—when she became the first woman of color to serve as chief people and culture officer for Major League Baseball—she faced burnout and had the courage to step back and reassess her career path. The result was a pivot to take on the challenge of nonprofit leadership. As Meyer-Shipp says, “If you get too complacent, you’re not growing.”
- Leaders who acknowledge and learn from their mistakes. Owning up to your mistakes is a sign of great leadership. According to , “Looking at most great leaders—creative artists, champion athletes, and successful entrepreneurs—they all have one thing in common: They take ownership of errors.” But owning your mistakes is just the first step in being a strategic thinker. The key is then learning from these mistakes and adjusting your strategy going forward. That’s what being a strategic thinker is all about.
Most of the nonprofit leaders we know fit into one or more of these categories. They’re bold, inspiring, and dedicated, willing to ask hard questions. But the crush of daily work sometimes means being a strategic thinker gets pushed into the background. Which is why it’s critical to cultivate a practice of strategic thinking for yourself and your organization.
Three Tips to Cultivate Strategic Thinking
As a nonprofit leader, you have the power to create an organizational culture that encourages strategic thinking. Here are three tips to get started:
1) Make strategic thinking a core value in your organization
Be proactive in communicating with staff about why strategic thinking is important. You can make innovation and strategic thinking one of your organization’s core values—integrating it into annual plans, job descriptions, and even evaluations. You can also proactively demonstrate how and why you value strategic thinking. Consider sharing your own experiences—both when you successfully used strategic thinking and when you didn’t.
2) Use your strategic plan to inform decision-making
By using your strategic plan as a touchstone for decision-making, you can turn strategic thinking into a daily practice. Your strategic plan serves as a roadmap for where your organization is going over the next 3-5 years. With your plan in hand, you can assess potential decisions based on what will bring your organization closer to its goals while remaining consistent with your stated values. If your organization doesn’t have a current strategic plan, we recommend investing in one as soon as possible.
3) Acknowledge and incentivize innovation
Have you ever worked in an organization that asked staff for their insights on a particular topic—and then proceeded to ignore that input anyway? This can be demoralizing and undermine trust, sending a message that you don’t value staff members’ time or ideas. If you want to provide a clear statement that your organization values strategic thinkers, it’s critical to consistently acknowledge when staff, board, and volunteers take the time to go beyond simply completing tasks and provide deeper insights. Creating intentional opportunities for innovation is not only good for keeping team members engaged, but also smart business sense.
Being a strategic thinker isn’t so much an identity as a daily practice. The choices we make as leaders for our organizations can set the tone from top to bottom. We can incentivize innovation and engagement, or we can shut it down.
So, the question isn’t are you a strategic thinker. The question is are you ready to become a strategic thinker? We certainly are.
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