Six ways to identify strategic thinkers

by Lauren Acurantes15 Dec 2016
Employees who are strategic thinkers add value to any organisation, said John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University and Silicon Valley HR thought leader.

They are forward-looking and are thus well-prepared for an economic future that’s difficult to predict, he wrote at Harvard Business Review.

They have a global and big-picture perspective that can pinpoint interrelationships between business elements and can help other employees be more aware of emerging trends in the industry, he added.

“Unfortunately, assessing whether a candidate is a strategic thinker is far from easy,” he said.

“The job interview is often the best opportunity to accurately separate out people who have this relatively rare talent from the high volume of candidates that only have tactical capabilities.” 

Here he has six suggestions on how recruiters can identify this much sought after talent:

‘Give them a real problem to solve’
You can choose to either present them with a real unsolved problem in the company or one you have already solved. The latter should give you insights into critical steps to look for in their replies, he said.

“What you should look for in a response will vary according to the particular problem you’ve asked them to solve, but there are essential steps that should be included in every answer,” he said.

This includes a strategic plan, key industry and economic factors, and ways to measure success upon implementation, among other things.

“In addition to assessing the individual steps, you should also look out for an answer that includes too many tactical steps and not enough of a strategic focus.”

Review a flawed strategic plan and identify potential problems
Show them the company’s initial drafts of a strategic plan and ask them to point out areas that seem flawed or problematic. If they are unable to find a significant number of flaws based on your knowledge, Sullivan said it is unlikely that they are strategic thinkers.

Ask them specific interview questions
Ask them a question such as, “What are the steps you’d take to identify which candidates for a job are strategic thinkers?”

“The answer here is helpful in two ways. It will give you ideas to improve your assessment, and it will provide insight into the candidate’s depth of understanding on the topic and how they describe themselves against that criteria,” he said.

Listen for certain phrases in their replies 
Phrases such as ‘strategic goals’, ‘cross-functional’, or ‘data-driven decisions’ are indicative of strategic thinkers, he said, because most “individuals that routinely quantify their results in dollars or revenue impacts are highly likely to be strategic”.

Be mindful, however, that they may just be spouting catchphrases. Ask them to define these phrases in order to see if they truly understand what it means.

Measure how much they value strategic thinking
Strategic thinkers value continuous learning so asking them of any sources they use to expand their capabilities is one way to gauge how big a value they put on strategy, said Sullivan.

“Ask them questions about your firm’s strategy, your strategic products, your recent strategic blunders, your strategic competitors, and the most strategic firms in the industry,” he said.

“The best candidates will have done this research in advance. If they haven’t, you should pass on them.”

‘Consider the questions they ask you’
You know you’ve got a strategic thinker on your hands when the questions they ask you are action-oriented and are related to the implementation of ideas, he said.

“The best candidates may ask questions related to planned changes to future corporate strategy, the opportunities they’ll have to contribute to strategy, and the strategic things that are happening within the department.”

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