How to develop managers who are strategic thinkers

Mental agility is a skillset that can help managers become more strategic in their focus and decisions, writes Jennie Walker

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”, as management guru Peter Drucker once said. But how does a leader know what the right things to do are in an organisation? There is no one right answer. It is a question of strategy.

Strategy and mental agility
While strategies are unique for each organisation in terms of its particular vision, mission and values, formulating them requires a common competency – mental agility. This is the speed and process by which our brains process information and generate solutions. In today’s increasingly complex, rapid-paced and global environment, there’s a lot of information streaming in all the time. Competing demands of stakeholders, incongruent information and cross-cultural paradoxes can be overwhelming to process all at once.

This is where mental agility separates leaders from the proverbial pack. Those who can make sense of the issues at hand and make quality decisions are more likely to succeed. So it is important to understand what comprises mental agility and how it can be developed in the organisation. While senior level managers, directors and executives are typically tasked with defining strategy for their departments, business units and the organisation as a whole respectively, mental agility is a skillset that must be built into all managers to help them move into these roles one day.

Mental agility ingredients
At Najafi Global Mindset Institute, our research has shown that the essential elements of this important skillset boil down to four important elements – the ability to:

  1. Grasp complex concepts (relatively) quickly
  2. Analyse and problem solve
  3. Understand abstract ideas
  4. Take complex issues and explain the main points simply and understandably.

A person with high mental agility is thoughtful, curious and asks many questions before coming up with a solution. He or she explores the problem at hand from several angles and considers the benefits and consequences of potential solutions. Consider the example of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his creation of the Apple Store. Prior to 2001, Macintosh computers were primarily sold in a variety of “big-box” retailers. Steve Jobs believed that Apple could increase its sales if the people selling their computers all knew how to use them well and genuinely loved the products.

But Jobs and other leaders at Apple knew little about how to create a retail strategy. Instead of just jumping into retail, Jobs first sought advice from leading retailers and then created a team of leaders with previous success in this area. Then those already very experienced retail leaders gathered insights about Apple customers through focus groups. Any of these leaders could have relied on previous experience to just move forward, but their high level of mental agility guided them to actively seek out information and thoroughly analyse the situation from multiple angles.

This is why they were able to generate unique strategies, such as a “Genius Bar”, a casual and no-pressure sales environment, and immediate sales processing through hand-held devices, all of which have come to position Apple as a leading retailer worldwide. As of August 2014, Apple had 435 stores in 16 countries and an online store in 43 countries.

As key players in talent development, HR professionals can help all managers enhance their mental agility through management development sessions, individual coaching, and by facilitating mentoring relationships among new and senior leaders.

4 tips to develop mental agility

  1. Incorporate analysis and problem solving in management development sessions through case studies, simulations and projects that require teams to “solve” real organisational problems in collaboration with others.
  2. In both management development sessions and through individual coaching, encourage managers to organise their thoughts visually to manage the quantity and complexity of information and to help see the issues clearly. This process is sometimes called visual thinking or mind mapping. Seeing the thought process can be useful in pointing out additional points for consideration.
  3. Encourage managers to invite other perspectives to help them see issues from new and different angles. Facilitating mentoring relationships in your organisation is a natural way to foster this behaviour.
  4. Once a manager has fully analysed an issue, challenge him or her to explain the issue and its main points simply and understandably. This is an important skill, as managers must often explain complex issues to stakeholders, employees and business partners who may not have the time or need to analyse the situation themselves.