How to Build Strategic Capability in Your High Potentials

Tammy Heermann Article

At dinner with my colleague one evening, we exchanged stories about the interesting projects we were working on. My colleague remarked how impressed she had been with one of our savvy young consultants and how she was deliberately stretching her strategic acumen on a project. I asked how, and when I heard, I knew that many more could benefit from her approach. It didn’t take a lot of her time to make this investment, it just meant being deliberate and asking different questions - strategic questions.

Make the decision to stretch

The first thing my colleague did was make the decision to invest in this person. Sure she was teaching her the technical aspects of the assignment, but she also deliberately set forth to stretch this person’s thinking beyond the technical aspects of the project.

These two colleagues of mine are industrial psychologists and spend their days assessing leaders and providing their objective judgment on capability, current performance and future potential. For most new consultants, just learning the ropes on a complex assignment like this would be enough.  How to write a great assessment report, how to debrief an executive on the results (read: when there’s things they don’t want to hear), how to advise the organization on next steps. There’s years of learning right there.  But my colleague knew that having great technical skills wasn’t enough on a project as high stakes as this one. She knows that what separates good consultants from great consultants is their ability to really understand the business they are working with, how the business makes money, and the pressures the leaders are under. She wanted our young star to know that business and strategic acumen would be critical to her success…perhaps even more so than her technical expertise.

Help them see another angle

Next my colleague helped the consultant to prepare for an upcoming meeting in a way she never could have imagined. She sent a bunch of background documents on the company and a note that said this…

I had in mind some questions that could be helpful for you to think about.  I think they’ll allow you to key in on what’s important in the background documents for our meeting.

  • What is a REIT and how is it different from any other publicly traded company?
  • Who owns this company?
  • What are the most important business decisions they make?
  • Who makes the most important decisions?  How broadly is decision-making shared?
  • Why does it make sense for this company to have a REIT?
  • What could be the most important function in the business (given #3 above)? 

Don’t worry, there’s no test ;)  We can discuss when you’re ready.

Pre-Brief and Debrief

The step you don’t want to miss is preparing your people properly for meetings or debriefing with them after. This is the critical time to answer questions, give feedback and walk through your approach and thinking. This exercise didn’t take more time for my colleague if that’s what you’re thinking. She was having project and on-boarding meetings with the consultant anyway. What she was doing was stretching her perspective by forcing her to make connections between the business, the dynamics in the organization, and the leadership that will be successful in that organization, with that strategy, at that point in time. That’s exactly what being strategic is about. It’s about piecing together seemingly disparate pieces of information to better understand the objectives, the opportunities, the challenges and the stakeholder relationships that need to be influenced to get work done.

If there’s a bright up and comer or high potential on your team, invest in taking them out of their technical comfort zone by stretching their thinking with broader questions like my colleague did. 

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