Moving from an operational to a strategic role

This is the third coaching letter in a series offered as part of my regular column. It responds to real questions managers in small or medium enterprises have asked me, but both company and individual information has been disguised and sometimes blended with others to be relevant to more people.

This is addressed to a manager promoted to a more strategic role:

This is such an interesting stage in your career. Having managed the biggest team in the company, you have now been given responsibility for a smaller unit, but covering a broader range of responsibilities with more strategic engagement.

Using the transitions Charan, Drotter and Noel describe in their book, The Leadership Pipeline, first you moved from managing yourself to managing others. Their next step is managing managers, but in smaller firms this is often combined with taking full responsibility for a function, as you have.

I’d like to pick out just two aspects of this transition: adding a strategic perspective and relying on others’ expertise.

In a sense managing the sales team was not that different from being a member of the team, except for spending a significant amount of time managing people and dealing with interpersonal dynamics. The role was clearly operational; you and your team were all responsible for the firm’s core products and you knew exactly what each member needed to do and how to do it.

As you mentioned when we spoke, it was well within your comfort zone and you found it easy to transfer your knowledge and experience to new members through coaching and mentoring them. Although in your small company you were already part of the senior management team, your horizon was quite limited. You just had to make sure your team delivered results.

But now you have to understand how your new portfolio contributes strategically to the success of everyone, and your own success depends on the success of the whole company.

Thinking strategically is not just the very important cognitive skill of analysing business cases. Underlying that is an orientation that continually scans what is happening out there, and considers consequences. It looks at the significance of all we see and do. The question you need to master for each activity changes from “Can it be done?” to “Will it contribute to the long-term success of the company as a whole?”

The other important aspect of this transition is collaborating with and influencing those who are not your direct reports. I remember noticing that rather than take ideas from colleagues in other teams, you preferred to do it all yourself – something that will no longer work now. In your new role you will have to rely on advice from professionals with more expertise in their subject than you have – even from someone reporting to you.

Similarly, the success of your function now depends on responding to the needs of peers across the company. That’s uncomfortable for someone as fiercely self-reliant as you are. Fortunately when we talked, you referred to your “elastic cognitive flexibility”. You will need this, together with the emotional maturity that does not depend on winning to affirm your self-worth. Successful managers need resilient self-concepts. This personal growth can be greatly helped through conversations with a professional coach, or a mentor or empathic boss.

The company will thrive if people at your level are thoroughly invested in helping colleagues in other functions succeed too. That way the company succeeds – and incidentally you also gather the experience and insight required for the next step in the leadership pipeline, which will be taking profit-and-loss responsibility for a business unit.

This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 11 July 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-07-11-jonathan-cook-moving-from-an-operational-to-a-strategic-role/ ).

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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