IT Employment

Can you rise in a company without being a strategic thinker?

Attention to detail is a great quality to have in IT, but do you think it's possible to reach the executive ranks of a company without being able to think strategically?

I have a friend who is highly intelligent and very detail oriented. He wanted to further his career so he earned an MBA. He's currently very frustrated because he feels like his bosses have never appreciated his intelligence (or at least shown that appreciation by way of a promotion to a more strategic position in the company).

If you want to make sure all your t's are crossed on a project, then he is definitely a person you want in your corner. I think that this is recognized and appreciated by his boss, to the point where he's the go-to person for that kind of thing.

However, he is also the first person to admit that he is not a strategic thinker. This got me to thinking if someone can reach an executive position in a company without being strategically-minded. Also, I wonder if strategic thinking can be taught or if it is something ingrained in the personality.

I'd like to get your opinions on this in a poll. Please take a second to take the poll below and we'll talk about the results once they're in.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

108 comments
Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...therefore some of the most professionally competent will never be promoted, while those who can disguise their lack of talent as having leadership potential will soar.

santeewelding
santeewelding

The recent comments by [b]Aungba[/b], [b]Tony[/b], and [b]codepoke[/b], are tactics getting to the strategic nub.

codepoke
codepoke

Exec = Strategic. Operational = Tactical. Strategic skills are more rare and pay better, but we all function within our gifts. Strategy can be taught, but it's like anything else. You can teach a back-end programmer to use the color wheel when designing a GUI, but he'll never have the natural eye for design. When you want a standout GUI you get yourself an artist. When you want an exec you find yourself a strategist.

Aungba Man
Aungba Man

Let's face it, most of us who follow TechRepublic are geeks. Geeks are not strategic thinkers. But strategic thinkers need geeks or their strategic thinking won't go anywhere. We geeks will never get as high or make as much money as strategic thinkers but we're doing what we love so who cares? I'll take a Toyota Corolla and fun any day over a Bentley and a heart attack.

monish.chopra
monish.chopra

By Strategic I mean able to align one's work with the corporate strategy. Why would a CEO want a CIO who in not fully aligned to the corporate strategy. At C-level people need to get the strategy and create activity to take the corporation there. IMHO, Strategic thinking can be taught. Just that our schooling (including MBA education) does not go in the "thinking process" ...

arag.mx7
arag.mx7

It all depends under who you are working with and with whom you are working with. Alas for me, I was not able to get promoted during my 4.5 years of stay in a company that is amongst the "top 10 of great employer". However, they like to give you more and more responsibilities year in year out without recognizing your abilities. In the end, I gave them my resignation and they tried to convince me to stay. Still, I left :)

mullachv
mullachv

Strategic about what? Strategic about one's career? This is a ridiculous question - if you have been in IT for at least 5 seconds you will realize that rising in an organization has very little to do with one's technical, strategic, analytical, academic skills - it is simply a people skills issue - how can you maneuver around an organization structure, and get along with your peers and managers, and manager's manager. Your poor friend has been trying hard working orthogonally to what is needed - it is similar to praying hard to God for good grades in school, when had you spent more time with the books you might have scored better. In an organization, one needs to show up and be friendly and be on the good books of one's peers and managers - and demonstrate your ability to articulate to your manager's maanager - not the immediate supervisor, as that person is a road block for you at best.

robert_keith_w
robert_keith_w

This is a SILLY QUESTION! I see it happen all the time. Just because someone rises to the top does not mean they are the Cream of the Crop. Unfair world we live in but it is what it is. You have to SELL YOURSELF. Make sure your accomplishments and/or ideas are known. Don't let or sit and watch someone else steal your glory!

sachinmistry25
sachinmistry25

Strategy has also relation with Maturity. Ask yourself I am capable of handling big responsibility; start thinking from basics. If you base is strong you will never fall from TOP. Therefore, start thinking about what is happening @ bottom level and then aim for top level; if someone directly reaches @ top level sometimes creates trouble for management, so best thing is, think as a mature person.

HouseOfUsher
HouseOfUsher

One needs to at least have the strategy to rise within the organisation even if one is otherwise as useless as a person with,,, an MBA an a ego, for example. But then again T-crossing has it's place in the world, so does I-dotting, ahh! that's his problem, he forgot to dot the I's. Obviously chose the wrong MBA, he only got half the course.

security101
security101

Strategy is what upper level management DOES, so, unless you can think that way, you won't last very long. Competence is the LAST thing an executive usually possesses, as any of us in corporate America know all too well.

julius
julius

I think the question is too broad to be answered in a simple yes or no. Corporate culture, perception, charisma, informal relationships, and other factors maz contribute to non-strategic thinkers to rise to the top tier. However, as the organization matures or finds itself challenged by non-routine issues, those with limited vision find themselves not compatible with the corporation's needs.

dkforbus
dkforbus

of course you can. it is called ass! kissing! I have seen it many times

Lorraine.Eastman
Lorraine.Eastman

You could probably rise to a management role. Managers are good and keeping the status quo, they do not need to think beyond their current project or sphere of influence. However to rise to a leadership role, you need to be a strategic thinker. The person in the leadership role is determining the direction of your next 5 to 10 projects.

karl.sumwalt
karl.sumwalt

I left a company to a higher position and later talked to one of the owners of the company I left. I stated I was not happy because I was never moved up, but others were brought in ahead of me. I asked if there was something I did wrong and stated that I always did the best job possible to show that I was a good employee. He simply stated that it was easier to higher someone above me and train them, and know that I was doing great where I was and that moving me meant training someone to do my job and do some minor training of me to move up. When I showed him that he was telling me I would have been promoted if I did not do well, but lost out because I did do well, he agreed. I then told him I was not interested in returning to a company that only promoted the lesser quality worker. Maybe this is the same type of situation.

Gonzalo34
Gonzalo34

IMHO, successful top executives almost always think of the big picture, have a more abstract view of the company, its people and resources, thinking of the business more in terms of a chess game, which makes strategically thinking easier. Emotional skills are also a powerful resource, which tech people usually lack or forget. Of course, being just nice and smiling won't pave the way to a successful business, but if you're expecting customers to act just like source code, you're at the wrong chair. Bottom line is, we just can't see the starts with a microscope.

cutting
cutting

Yes - it is possible but - the rest of the question is missing... can he succeed in the job?

TGGIII
TGGIII

First - yes to all those who said the secret sauce is politics - this is what non-relational people call influencing skills. They are essential to rise above manager. Beyond this, there is room for technical skill but executives are more interested in how much you can accomplish, not what you know. This typically means assembling and running effective teams. This can also be thought of as using others talents. This could also be considered a taking vs. giving mindset. How much you give back to those who gave is a key cultural consideration. You will find others with strategic talents that you can leverage - partner with them to round out your skill set...they may need a tactician.

ChrisK-
ChrisK-

Most of the Executives in Busness today are not "Forward Strategic" thinkers anyway-Most of them cannot even define what strategic intent is for their company.

martinharvey2000
martinharvey2000

Technically, it is possible to get to a top position in a company without being able to think strategically (that's why I answered 'yes' to the poll). The thing is your chances of doing a good job are not good. The question should have been "Is it possible to do a good job AND be happy being in a top position in a company without being able to think strategically". For that friend of yours who's very analytic and into details, he has to accept he is probably not fit to work in such a position as he'd probably always be interfering in his employees' cases doing micromanagement and/or totally unhappy not being able to go into details.

Paul W. Homer
Paul W. Homer

Tactics and strategy are completely different mindsets. There are, of course, some strategically-impaired leaders, but they generally they don't do well. The best example is Apple. Compare Jobs to Sculley.

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

Sometimes the useless are escalated. Somehow, at some time, it became the brilliant idea to promote those who can only work in crayon. The reasoning must have been that they could no longer botch the work product if they were managing the remainder of employees that could produce. There are many bad business ideas floating around. This is just one of them. Cream is not the only thing that floats ;)

sahanesh.narayan
sahanesh.narayan

Getting the work done gets you to the top. Doing the work always keeps you one level lower than the guy who is getting the work done by you..... Strategic thinking does benefit. But can the strategic thinker get the company to walk the path? In a "mom and pop" store, the employee can never be the boss. In the corporate world, to get higher, you need to have the strategic thinkers working for you!

ossyemeh
ossyemeh

If you can't think strategically, how then can the company move forward when you are leading?

ogouninfosec
ogouninfosec

He should ask for a raise, perhaps even a title change, but he is not a good fit, nor would he be happy in a strategic job if he's not a strategic person. That is what executive jobs are all about. He won't get to do the detail oriented stuff he's good at and would be forced to spend many hours (of unpaid over time, too) trying to do the types of thinking he is not good at. I don't think your friend is a good fit for a strategy based job. It does sound like he's a good asset to the company and should be compensated for it, but an executive job is not the way. That would be like torturing him for his good efforts. Plus executive jobs come with better pay, but they also come with liability, something he probably doesn't want.

rbuyaky
rbuyaky

A promotion will usually be decided between 2 or more people. If one of those people is a "strategic thinker" you might expect that person to have a strategy for career advancement in addition to using his skills on the job. Usually the candidate with the better strategy will win the promotion. It's really not about job performance at all. You can deliver projects late, overspend your budget and run a department in complete disarray, but if your strategy includes hiding all that from your superiors while highlighting the weaknesses of your competition along the way, you are likely to get that promotion. Quietly doing an awesome job will get you nowhere if you don't have some strategy for self-promotion.

dmills
dmills

"To regard thinking as a skill, rather than a gift is the first step towards doing something to improve that skill." Edward de Bono, Practical Thinking Is he correct? I don't know for sure (but I do believe it to be true), but I've seen Army officers who started the Advanced Military Studies Program as very good tactical thinkers transform into excellent strategic and operational thinkers.

DeirdreMooney
DeirdreMooney

No! Strategic thinking deals in the tomorrow. Tomorrow doesn't have "detail"! It always involves change,it is aspirational - the way you want to see the future and Strategic Planning lays out the steps to get you there! Deirdre from Ireland. Deirdre.mooney@efficient.ie

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

The first view is that you have to see the big picture, the view at 40,000 feet, to be an effective leader. Which brings us to the second view. The devil is in the details. The key to becoming a top level executive is being above all, a social creature able to convince everyone above you on the food chain that you're the person to have at their side. Those that aren't very competent at the work move frequently to avoid consequences; while those who actually know what's going on tend to stay in those positions for extended periods of time. Charisma goes a long way, and is something that most people don't seem to be capable of learning. Which is why I'm never likely to be an executive, or a politician above the town level.

harkiratb
harkiratb

if your boss is a dumber... sorry for that word. You really cant help. Wait till you have another boss on board. Thats another strategic thinking... so yes

blykins
blykins

Being a strategic thinker can be an advantage, but being the absolute "go-to" guy can be more valuable. It may take longer to rise through the ranks as the opportunities to showcase executive level skills may not be available, but when you do you'll hit a home run every time. As the opportunities come more and more, it will be evident that you know more than what they think you do, and sometimes (and I mean at the frequency of once every year or so) making them look a little stupid works wonders. This can have a downside, especially when it comes to promotion time. You can suddenly become "too valuable in your current position" to be granted the promotion. That is why I am a firm believer in having an intelligent protege behind you, but DO NOT teach them everything. make sure you leave a little to be discovered on their own.

doug
doug

Personally, I believe it is very rare for a person to be able to rise within an organization without being a strategic thinker. This might over simplify, but it boils down to those who lead, perform or just get by and earn a paycheck. (I won't address the latter). There are those who are who are organizers and facilitators (focusing on their ability to strategically think and lead); and then you have people with skill and talent. Additionally, when thinking about rising in a company, I think of a hierarchy of roles not so much of who gets better benefits and pay. I would rather have my managers and leaders thinking about the bottom line, how to meet the goals of the organization, and surround themselves with intelligent people (like me). (By the way, when thinking about this question, my thoughts are about C-level, presidents, and vice-presidents positions. Even team leaders need to think strategically; being concerned about the direction of their team, pulling in more projects, improving metrics, etc.) Besides, if you are intelligent and possess a high degree of skill, you can earn a comfortable income without taking on the head aches and risks taken on by those in a strategic thinking position. (In a large company, when a high level manager or C-level person has a failed project, its not uncommon for them to be terminated. However, when a non-strategic thinking role has a failure, its more of an opportunity; or a discovery of areas of improvement.) $0.02

saurabh.mukadam
saurabh.mukadam

One who is good listner, good implementer, good talker can go rise in a company even though he is not a strategic thinker. I have seen such people who talk irrelevant and are consider as a thinker coz they just talk and influence the people to listen to them

dvwatkins
dvwatkins

The Leadership Pipeline (Charan, Drotter, & Noel, 2006) describes six passages that leaders go through as they ascend through a company. The book has several examples of leaders who have risen to different ranks within a company without having developed important skills, competencies, and values at each passage. So, to answer your question, I would say, "YES". However, your friend is unlikely to be successful in his new role until he develops strategic thought processes (which definitely can be taught) as well as other important leadership competencies.

richardpereira
richardpereira

All you need is a course in apple polishing. That works wonders especially in todays climate whether the bootlickers of the past are being phased out for being good at apple polishing only.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

There are the people who do the work, and then there are the people that facilitate or enable the work. Work-people don't serve a strategic purpose, they serve (extending the metaphor) a tactical purpose. A detail-genius could perhaps be good at coordinating a team or maintaining the integrity of the product of disparate teams... That's still pseudo-tactical; like a battlefield captain, maybe. The strategic thinking isn't the important part, though. The strategic roles are the ones with less work-work and more meta-work, less details and more uncertainty, the need for specific knowledges giving way to the need for talent (to some extent at least). People who communicate well can be of great strategic importance. F.ex. a CIO who is capable of handling both corporate and tech people well, is much more of a strategic asset than one who only handles one of those well. All things being equal... Strategic planning is not the same as being a strategic asset, the former is not the qualifier for a strategic position, the latter is (or should be, this is not always actually implemented, or so I keep hearing).

dan
dan

sometimes you need to just accept that you need to find what you're really good at and make the most of it. I'm not saying give up striving higher, but higher up the ladder doesn't necessary mean better.. its better to be the best techie you can, rather than be a mediocre manager of a team. and the sooner more companies realize this, and rewards staff correctly, the better. sometimes it seems that the only way to earn more is to move to management, that's wrong. Sure you need good managers, but at the expense of some of your greatest assets? Pay grades need to reflect ability, real ability, not just distance from the top of the page on an org chart...

knut.boehnert
knut.boehnert

There's a difference between strategy and vision. A good leader has a vision (like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King to name a few). Most people that are good with details (myself included) lack in the visionary aspect in that it hard to formulate the vision and apply a strategy to it.

i.hilliard
i.hilliard

In larger organisations too much energy is spent by people working out who to kiss up to and who to stab in the back to get ahead. This requires strategic thinking, but is damaging to the company. This is one of the reasons that startups are so much better at bringing new ideas to the market. In startups, everybody works at promoting the company and the new products. The general rule in larger companies, is that the company and the products come secondary to personal ambition. Those who attempt to rise through competency get squashed. Ian

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Is making your products into cloud based services. A vision? A Strategy? or a tactic? In my terms a strategy is an approach to solving a problem or set of problems. I'm a geek and I do that all the time, within the constraints the business sets. You do as well. The real reason techs don't make it up the ladder, is they aren't big on wishful thinking and self delusion, because they are the ones who have to make the next big idea work.

jk2001
jk2001

It's possible he was being tactful. They may not have wanted to promote you. It's hard to tell. Some promotions are not about merit, but personality.

ga.dawson
ga.dawson

I'd ask your friend what he's really chasing. I understand wanting to progress, but I also think our society has made people feel guilty for finding their niche in life. Rather than fighting his nature, he'd do better to step back, look at the market and find the jobs where that "attention to detail" is really appreciated. A friend of mine once wanted to get into a senior technical position, but he was always lacking in those skills. He worked really hard at it, but in the end his brain just didn't work that way. I finally said to him.. "You can keep beating your head against the wall if you like, but you'll *always* lose to the guys who are naturals at it." He finally stepped back and realised he had exceptional people skills, so now he works as a supervisor.

saurabh.mukadam
saurabh.mukadam

One who is good listner, good implementer, good talker can go rise in a company even though he is not a strategic thinker. I have seen such people who talk irrelevant and are consider as a thinker coz they just talk and influence the people to listen to them

jk2001
jk2001

It's okay to try to manage and fail. Better to have love and lost, etc.

bigjude
bigjude

One of the difficulties of this discussion is the different meanings being given to the word "strategy." At my age (72) I see it in its traditional sense as a military organisational term relating to a long term objective ... such as Alexander the Great planning to conquer a big chunk of the known world. Tactics are what you employ to win a single battle. To really understand strategy in its traditional sense you need to read "The Art of War" which was written long before the word "strategy" was invented but which describes it perfectly. A true strategic thinker needs to be able to visualise the big,big, big picture over a lengthy period. But the word "strategy" has morphed into something else for many people because of its use in computer games where most "strategies" are really "tactics." "Vision" is neither, being an ispirational dream, and is more in the nature of "what if?" From where I sit, most creative people have vision. Most executives can think tactically. Very few people are true strategists. (Global warming proves that.)And the strongest skill needed in any company is "leadership" combined with the ability to recognise the strengths of others.

jk2001
jk2001

Hmm... I kind of agree - but I think detail oriented people have a lot of good visions. They just don't have the strategic and political abilities. It's three different skills going on there. It's rare that people excel in all three things. You can learn them all to a certain extent, though. I work in a labor organization where I get to meet a lot of union mucky-mucks, and some politicians. They aren't all that "smart" about technical things, but many are very strategic thinkers about economic situations, more are good at personal politics -- and most seem to be stronger at one or the other. Some are technical, too, but it's rare. Believe it or not, there are politicians who aren't "people persons". Jerry Brown the gov. of CA is one, and he won by a landslide. He's heavy on strategy and is analytical about politics. I think hardcore computer geeks don't give themselves enough credit. Richard Stallman is a major visionary, and well ahead of the world by years. Linus Torvalds was strategically wise beyond his years - the man saved Unix, and made it look easy.

brainphat
brainphat

All these points are fine & good, but I do believe this topic is nothing but comment-bait. Although it wasn't mentioned, I'll wager Mr. MBA is not good with people. Oh, he may have a group of friends and a significant other, but that doesn't mean anything. Everyone has that. Can he persuade other to give him what he wants? There are really two ways to get ahead: (1) Be born wealthy or well-connected so you start out with so many resources and self-confidence that you're free to take more risks, be more aggressive, and buy more friends. Or (2) you can assert yourself! Talk to your boss/his boss/HR about moving up, what they're looking for. Talk to others who have or had the type of position you're wanting. You have to make friends and find/create opportunities. If your current employer doesn't appreciate you for no good reason, then leave. Go somewhere else or start your own business. Nobody cares how excellent you are/think you are! Nobody cares how much you want to be promoted. Then there's (3): you can whine about how no one appreciates your awesomeness and hope to get lucky.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Vision, I think may be he took preserving the state and it's institutions/leaders as a given. :p To me vision is a statement ("We will be the most successful business ever" coloured by a strategy, "by being the value for money choice in the market". Tactics, increase quality without increasing the price, or decrease price and forget about quality, buy up the competeition, landgrab, muscle them out of the market... The real mistake most make is letting their tactics override their strategy. Use blitzkrieg on Russia, for instance...

i.hilliard
i.hilliard

As Dr. Lawrence Peter noted, "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence" It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the "salutary science of hierarchiology", "inadvertently founded" by L. J. Peter (deceased 12.1.1990). It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. This principle can be modelled and has theoretical validity for simulations.[1] Peter's Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Peter_Principle The people, who have reached their limit, tend to act out of fear and like the king of the castle, they spend their time kicking like mad to stop others from getting up. This is why you often have to network with your bosses boss or get promoted up into another company/division/etc... Ian

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