Develop Your Strategic Skills: Four Steps to Advance Your Career

Strategic skills may be more critical to your success than writing or mathematical skills. Many successful people are poor writers and weak at mathematics, but all are good strategists. Unfortunately, few students are taught the principles of strategy. Even fewer are born good strategists. “Fight” or “flight”—our natural responses to competitive threats—are usually the worst strategies.

Though we commonly use “strategy” to mean “plan,” business environments are too unpredictable for long-term plans. Ask a successful businessperson to describe his or her career path, and the steps described will look chaotic, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t strategic. Strategy is a methodology for systematically spotting and exploiting opportunities to improve your position over time. As taught in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, this methodology consists of repeating four steps—analysis, vision, movement, and positioning—over and over again.

Sun Tzu taught that everyone holds a unique position in his or her competitive environment that provides the starting point for this methodology. The first step, analysis, details how to gather and organize information about your situation. In your first job, for example, this means not only learning your duties, but learning your co-workers’ jobs, your boss’s problems, your company’s systems, and so on. The principles of strategy teach that this knowledge, not force or strength, is the basis for all future success.

The next step is vision, which defines how you identify and evaluate potential opportunities. Sun Tzu teaches that opportunity naturally arises out of unmet needs, but that selecting the correct opportunity is a challenge. You look for small, nearby steps that you can quickly take to improve your position, but which provide you greater opportunities in the future. For example early in my career, I found that my fellow employees tended to avoid tasks involving computers. Since I saw that computers were going to be a larger and larger part of the future, I began to learn more about them.

Once you spot a likely opportunity, you use movement to safely change your position. Many people can spot opportunities, but they are unable to find ways to move toward them safely, leading them to jump into situations where they fail. Instead, The Art of War teaches us how to make moves that are certain to succeed. In my case, I began gradually taking on computer-related tasks to help my fellow employees. My responsibilities never changed dramatically, but gradually, I became the “go-to guy” for computer knowledge.

The final step in the cycle is positioning, that is, making the change in your situation pay. Positioning can arise from others automatically recognizing your increased value, but more often than not, it means asking for a change in title and pay to reflect your new responsibilities. In my case, knowledge of computers proved to be the key to my success as a salesperson as more and more my customers moved toward computerized ordering systems that I understood better than they did.

This cycle of analysis, vision, movement, and positioning is repeated over and over again to improve your position. As you improve your strategic skills, even large changes, such as moving to a new company or onto a different career, are accomplished almost effortlessly as opportunities present themselves. In my case, I moved from the consumer product industry to the computer industry and eventually to start my own successful software company.

Gary Gagliardi is the author of the book series: The Art of War Plus. His website is www.Clearbridge.com.


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