So What Does “Strategic” Really Mean?

Larry Tucker

In a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “What the CFOs Want”, their number one priority was to “become a strategic CFO”. I thought: “I wonder if they know what that means”?

That got me to thinking about nonprofit executive directors. There seem to be two types: Operations Managers and Strategic Leaders.

Operations managers do a great job of maintaining the existing organization: Managing staff and programs effectively, following federal and state laws and standards, delivering consistent outcomes, developing and adhering to budgets, soliciting donors and applying for grants to continue income flow.

Strategic leaders seem to have other qualities that others can often discern, but may have a hard time defining. Let me suggest some things that strategic leaders actually do that are different from actions of typical operations managers. You may have other suggestions.

Strategic leaders……….

…..have internalized a vision* of what the organization can become and work toward that vision with effective goal-setting. Example: We currently serve 100 children in need in our community. In five years, we will serve 1000.

…..think outside of their offices and workplaces. They have regular contact with their community leaders, their clients, and their peers. Their ideas and vision are shaped by the diverse input of many stakeholders. Example: Our community needs an additional service that our organization is well-positioned to provide.

…..can “see around corners”. That is, they have considered the influences of internal and environmental factors and trends on their organizations and have taken steps to offset or take advantage of these factors. Example: Donor contributions dropping? Here’s plan B.

…..delegate administrative and operational duties to others in order to take the time to think strategically and focus on goals. Example: Executive directors who have risen through their organizations are often so personally invested with their programs, staff or clients, they have a hard time pushing themselves away.

…..can eloquently share their vision to rally support both internally and externally. Example: Annually, the executive director shares her vision with the board, explaining the derivation of the assumptions used to develop the vision and the benefits of following that vision. 

Should you be both an excellent operations manager and a strategic leader? Yes, but you’ll have to delegate some things to achieve this goal. 

Can an operations manager become a strategic leader? Yes, but you’ll need to take some specific actions and maybe develop a few new skills to get there. 

I’d be interested to hear if any readers have some additional thoughts. 

*Not to be confused with the organization’s stated vision. A leader’s vision will support the organization’s vision, but will likely be more specific in terms of actions and outcomes.

Author:  Larry Tucker,  Executive Coaches of Orange County,