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Home arrow Management arrow Strategic Management in the 21st Century. The Operational Environment

Actions for Mid-Level Managers, "Lieutenants," or Individuals

Separate from top managers at large and start-up companies are the managers deeper in an organization who execute strategy. They too face unusual challenges on the soft stuff, and we offer several suggestions.

Understand Strategy

First, make it your business to understand the strategy thoroughly. Make an effort to understand how your work contributes to the success of the business. If you are a manager, explain how the work of your unit fits into the big picture and help people feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.

Adjust When You Need To

Partly because you may not develop the strategy, you need to learn how to understand and read it, especially as changes in direction or strategy are in the works. As you recognize it, you will need to adjust accordingly. Resist the temptation to hunker down and protect the status quo. Have the courage and the wisdom to embrace the change and become an advocate. Inform yourself about the reasons for the change and understand the implications for your work. If you cannot truly commit and remain engaged, consider whether you should pursue a different position elsewhere. Recognize that remaining but resisting could stall your career.

Develop and Nurture Peer Relationships

Rather than seeing them as competitors, find and cultivate your peers in other areas of the business. Assist others when you can and develop a reputation as a strong team player. Know when to lead and when to follow. Support others in their efforts to strengthen lateral relationships. Reach out beyond your area to develop relationships and understand the big picture. Seek and seize opportunities to work with peers across the organization. Ask how you can help others to succeed and how together you can contribute to the success of the organization.

In addition to those within your organization, find a professional buddy outside your organization—someone you can trust and use as a sounding board. Cultivate your ability to consider work challenges from a different vantage point by seeking the perspectives of those outside your immediate area. Expand your thinking by growing your professional network and learning from others who are quite different from you.

Develop the Soft Skill of Great Communication

Finally, in addition to embracing change, understanding the strategy, and building strong relationships both inside and outside your organization, make it a priority to develop strong communication skills. Helping others understand how your work fits with theirs and contributing to the success of the firm is a critical leadership skill. Develop your ability to ask penetrating questions that get to the heart of the matter.

The best leaders and managers know the value of questions and use them for at least four different reasons: to learn, to build relationships and teams, to solve problems, and to find or anticipate problems. The best also know how to ask questions; so you too should recognize the difference between questions that challenge (and therefore may intimidate) and questions that genuinely ask for more information to enhance your understanding. And then, of course, take care to listen to the answers others provide. While someone else is speaking, resist the temptation to mentally rehearse your next remark.

Actions for Students and for Professors

As we mentioned at the beginning of this section, whether students believe it or not now, they will likely become one of the managers that we talked about previously, whether in a large or small firm, perhaps even the one at the top. In that role, students can either support the successful execution of their organization's business strategy, or be obstacles to it. We hope they choose to help their organizations succeed.

Actions for Students

So what can students do while they are still at universities to enhance their abilities to succeed later? We offer several suggestions. First, instead of dreading group and team projects, welcome the chance to be part of a team that has a goal. Take advantage of opportunities to work with a team, sort out how to achieve a goal, and build strong peer relationships. Recognize that such opportunities are relatively free of risk—that is, failure will not mean job loss—but the skills you will acquire will be a boon for you—and the organization you join—in the future.

Second, cultivate your own communication skills—particularly asking good questions and listening actively. Ask for feedback from your team members on how well you communicate and ask for tips from those you think are good communicators. Watch and learn from those who do well what you have not yet mastered.

Also, learn how to bring out the best in others. Recognize that even difficult people and stressful situations offer you great opportunities to learn and grow. Working with others—even those you dislike—is a requirement of work life; the stronger your interpersonal skills are, the more successful you are likely to be. Develop people skills to balance your technical skills, and realize that both are essential in the workplace of the 21st century.

Finally, grasp the opportunity to gain experience from internships within organizations in ways you might not have fully tapped to date. Watch how people in the organization build relationships in both formal and informal ways. Ask questions about what kind of skills are needed to be hired and then to succeed in the firm.

Actions for Professors

Students are not in the learning process alone, as we know. Professors also have an opportunity and a responsibility to help students cultivate these skills. We offer a few suggestions. First, create assignments that indeed provide true conditions for students to lead and to work as a team. Recognize that too often assignments allow for social loafing, rather than encourage and force engagement by all. Consider allowing a team to sanction members (even to the point of "firing" a member). Add peer assessment at the close of a project to provide useful feedback to the students. If possible, offer the chance for multiple projects with the same team so that members can rotate the leader responsibility. Encourage students to learn to lead and be a team player. Cultivate and reward interpersonal skills as well as technical expertise to help students gain these critical abilities that executives value.

Second, acknowledge that students need to learn how to bring out the best in others—even then they are not in charge and are not required to do so. Call on students to find ways to integrate their ideas with the good ideas from other team members—rather than trying to prevail. Learning to cooperate—rather than compete—is, again, a skill that senior executives look for but often do not find in potential employees. Help students learn to draw others out, instead of passively waiting for others to engage.

As students practice working with peers, encourage them to consciously notice and consider the lessons they gain from the experiences, build on them, and adapt the lessons to new endeavors. Cultivate the ability to reflect, which also helps to build the valuable characteristic (alas) of seeing the "bigger picture." By stepping back to reflect, students are also learning to step back and see a broader situation, which in turn can also help instill the understanding of the benefits of cooperation across silos or different functional areas. Though these soft skills are hard to learn, hard to develop, and hard to use, your classroom offers generally safe conditions for students to practice them.17

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