Career Q&A: “How Do I Prove I’m Strategic?”

“As part of my job search, I am running into an issue that surprises me and am unsure how to resolve.  I was knocked out of the running for a position because I was told I was not ‘strategic’ enough.  I don’t know the best way to handle this.  I feel that I am strategic and that I couldn’t get the results I’ve gotten to date if I weren’t, but I’m having a hard time demonstrating/articulating this in an interview.  (When I ask what “strategy” means to them, I don’t receive very concrete answers, which adds to my confusion.)  If you know of any resources, tips, etc. that could help me demonstrate my strategic thinking ability, it would be most appreciated.  Thanks much!”

This is a great question, and before I launch into my typical long-winded answer, please note that you could plug almost any desirable trait or requested work strength into the advice framework I’ll be spelling out below and the results should be equally effective.  I will admit, though, that the “strategic vs. tactical” debate is one that has a special status in the interview process, since many employers ask for employees to be highly strategic in outlook — and frankly, I’m not always sure they, themselves, could define what they mean by this!

So let’s start there.  If you keep getting the feedback that you’re not strategic enough for certain positions, I’d ask you to first challenge yourself to define the differences between “strategic” and “tactical” in your own mind.  Are you clear on what it means to be strategic?  Do you have a really crisp definition of the concept, yourself, or are the two things kind of running together in fuzzy fashion in your own mind?  Don’t be embarrassed if this is the case.  It’s pretty common.  But if this is a point of vulnerability in terms of you landing your next job, you can’t afford not to have a crystal-clear command of the differences.  So do some research.  For starters, you could check out the definition of strategy here on Wikipedia.  Or you could Google the phrase “strategy vs. tactics” and find all kinds of fascinating discussions on the Internet in terms of the differences between the two, including a blog post here from marketing expert Seth Godin that makes some good points on the subject.

You could even turn to the popular StrengthsFinder assessment for an explanation of what it means to be strategic, since this is one of the 34 personal strengths this tool has singled out in individuals.  According to this well-respected framework, being strategic: “…enables you to sort through the clutter and find the best route. It is not a skill that can be taught. It is a distinct way of thinking, a special perspective on the world at large. This perspective allows you to see patterns where others simply see complexity. Mindful of these patterns, you play out alternative scenarios, always asking, ‘What if this happened? Okay, well what if this happened?’ This recurring question helps you see around the next corner. There you can evaluate accurately the potential obstacles. Guided by where you see each path leading, you start to make selections. You discard the paths that lead nowhere. You discard the paths that lead straight into resistance. You discard the paths that lead into a fog of confusion. You cull and make selections until you arrive at the chosen path — your strategy. Armed with your strategy, you strike forward. This is your Strategic theme at work: “What if?” Select. Strike.

So again, before I’d even start worrying about proving you’re strategic to an employer, I’d make 100% sure you have a solid grasp of what the concept actually means.  Armed with this understanding, you can then go back through your work history and look for examples that will support your claim.  Have you put together complex marketing plans that show how multiple tactical marketing steps will achieve the overall goal?  Have you identified key windows of opportunity in the market or areas where your competitors have a hidden vulnerability?  Have you helped executive teams decide among multiple choices by playing these scenarios out a few years into the future, to see where they would likely lead?  These are the kinds of contributions, to me, that would qualify as strategic in nature.  And another great way to illustrate strategy is to talk about the activities you convinced a company not to pursue, just as much as the ones you got the green light around.  This really shows you’ve got a strategic outlook, versus just engaging in activity for activity’s sake, which is often a hallmark of the tactically-minded individual.

Ultimately, you may not win every employer over.  Some may simply be using the “you’re not strategic enough” excuse as camouflage for some other aspect of your candidacy that they’re not thrilled about.  But if they keep fishing around this issue, or suggesting they’re not seeing enough strategic thinking demonstrated in your background, you have to be ready to immediately address this issue and put it to rest.  So first, get clear on what it actually means.  Even consider clarifying this definition out loud with the employer, before moving further, to ensure the two of you are on the same page.  And then, when the timing’s right, start walking them through a series of your most strategic accomplishments, one by one, until they throw the white flag and say “We’re sorry we ever doubted you!”

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