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How do You Transition to Strategic Leader?

strategic leadership vs operational leadershipIn my career I have always been a good "firefighter". I have even had a previous boss tell me "the hotter the fire the better you perform", but that is not a skill in and of itself that allows anyone to be a rainmaker, and get to the top of the corporate ladder.  I have always tried to teach those who worked for me how to not only work out of their Inboxs (be firefighters), but that is much easier said than done. I would love some advice on how to help people transition from firefighter to a strategic leader. I always make sure that I determine the root cause of fires and teach my people to do the same, and that has helped on some level. I know some will say delegate firefighting, but what else?

Answers

Martin Thunman
Title: CEO
Company: Adra Match
(CEO, Adra Match) |

Ernie, most people struggle with the balance between action-driven firefighting and long(er) term planning.

The best advice I can give, that works for me, is to make (for instance) 60 days plans and a rolling 12 month plan. Force yourself (and your team) to review the last 60 days result and plan ahead. We divide the plan in two main categories: 1) Strategic improvement projects and 2) Short term issues.

The challenge is to keep the discipline and do it every 60 days so we try to keep documentation at a minimum (in ppt). Forcing yourself to plan ahead will also help you divide your time and attention better. Hopefully, the long term improvement projects will (over time) reduce the load of short term issues, freeing up even more time for strategic focus.

Mark Matheny
Title: VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis
Company: Novolex (formerly Hilex Poly)
(VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis, Novolex (formerly Hilex Poly)) |

Much easier said then done. With all the data available today and the ease to process it, companies want to use it. But I think we are finding that getting accurate data and a common understanding of what it represents is an ongoing challenge. Getting into the details and making sure processes are in place to supply consistent information is critical. Is it a bad thing to be firefighting on this? Somebody has to do it or using the information for strategic purposes is worthless.

Elisabeth Bagdiul
Title: Consultant
Company: None
(Consultant, None) |

I agree with what Martin is saying, and to share with you what worked best for me is to develop a matrix called FMEA.

Failure Mode and Effect Analysis is very helpful tool to spot anything what may ''go wrong'' within the business process(es), understand how fast the odds can be identified, remediated and what are potential preventive measures which can be taken to remove the failures from the process or mitigate or transfer the responsibility (in other words options to manage the risks associated with the failure occurence]. FMEA helps a lot to get a clear picture on stability of the operational process, measures which should be taken and especially builds awareness across the business doamin/cross-domain, which result in lower or almost no so called ''surprises''.

I hope it may be a workable solution for your organization.

EMERSON GALFO
Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

A problem solver (firefighter) should not be measured by the fires he extinguishes but the solutions he implements that makes sure that it never happens again and all the while building the organization they want to become.

It is a paradigm shift (i know...another buzzword, but it is apt) if you package or see yourself from a problem solver to a solutions provider and an organization (all context) builder. In short, don't count the fires but the solutions and the improvements.

Fires are just the result of inherent problems within the organization and the more fires you fight, the deeper the problem is. I have been in this situation before and I'd like to see myself as working myself out of the job (firefighting) and striving to get the organization "humming" by implementing solutions. There comes a time when you just sit in your office, and look out your window and can just feel the fruits of your labor.

Peter Rojcewicz
Title: Chief Academic Officer and Accreditation..
Company: University of the West
(Chief Academic Officer and Accreditation Liaison Officer, University of the West) |

Ongoing firefighting can lead to or be a sign of departmental or organizational overload. Rather than engaging in a process of continuous planning that means scaling the knowledge of one’s best talent to achieve optimal performance, we frantically run around addressing problems as they flare up. Operations tend to be tactical rather than strategic, moving from one crisis to another. As such, firefighting, however courageous and energetic, communicates the wrong message throughout the organization, presenting a model of effective leadership as frantic business, rather than disciplined long range planning that leads to value creation. A balance between firefighting and reflective inquiry is necessary for sustained organizational effectiveness.

Matt Jackson
Title: President
Company: OpsVantage
LinkedIn Profile
(President, OpsVantage) |

This is a terrific question Ernie and something most executives struggle with. People generally have a strong bias to be a builder, a fixer, or a maintainer and when the organizational need changes, they can be completely blind to it and quickly become out of step with the needs of the company.

Things I have seen work are:
1. Be aware that this happens and keep an ongoing conversation with peers about where they see the needs of the company heading.

2. Get very clear about what needs to be fixed, and when that is accomplished evaluate what the right next step is...more fixing, pivot to grow, pivot to maintain?

3. Organize work to your strengths. Direct reports should be looking for ways to grow, so if there is a particular build or maintain task that is real drudgery identify how it can be a (legitimate) growth opportunity for someone else.

4. Re-frame the work, but not the talk track. I happen to be a fixer. When the fix is complete and a client needs a next phase of a project to really operationalize the changes, I frame it in my head as the next thing that is broken. But I recognize the external talk track needs to change, so it becomes "Now that we have the issue stabilized, we are going to use that success to grow top line revenue and optimize the cost structure."

5. Be honest with yourself. If you really are a fixer and just can't roll out of bed to go maintain a well running organization, admit it. Talk with the boss and work out a transition timeline that gives the organization the leader they need and gives you work you love to do.

Hope this helps!

LAWRENCE SMITH
Title: CEO Founder
Company: Wisdom4Hire
(CEO Founder, Wisdom4Hire) |

Emerson's comments resonated for me, Ernie. Task is important but process rules.

You need to stop the analysis of how the fire started in the first place; this always involves finger pointing and blame assignment either directly or indirectly. Every one needs to be focused on the potential consequences of the fire continuing. The timeline starts now and only looks forward.

Once the troops are rallied and the fire is out (your forte), the implementation of what needs to be in place to prevent any recurrence highlights the strategic issues. If you make sure that everyone who made a significant contribution gets credit for that and you have backfill (i.e. a successor within your group who can step into your shoes) you are prepared to capitalize on the next opportunity.

My experience has been that "There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care gets the credit." Benjamin Jowett 1817-1893

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