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How to Become a More Strategic Leader

Point of View: Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design, Facebook

A Facebook executive shares her definition of strategic leadership.

MY CAREER AT FACEBOOK started in 2006 as its first intern. Three years later, I became a rookie manager at the age of 25. Today, I manage an organization of hundreds of people. This journey has brought countless new challenges, mistakes and lessons.

One of my key areas of growth as a manager has been strategy. As I progressed in my career, I knew that there was an expectation that the work I did would become increasingly ‘strategic’. But what did that really mean? This is what I used to think it meant:

  • Setting metric goals.
  • Thinking outside the box to come up with new ideas.
  • Working harder and motivating others to work harder.
  • Writing long documents.
  • Creating frameworks.
  • Drawing graphs on a whiteboard.

I tried to do as many of these things as I could. I brainstormed. I wrote epic, sweeping documents. I familiarized myself with the language of KPIs and measurements. Before each new task, I gave myself a mental check. This, I thought, must be strategizing.

Unfortunately, I was doing the equivalent of strumming a guitar and assuming I was making music. The core problem was that I didn’t really understand what strategy was. Because nobody had ever explained it to me, I figured that being strategic simply meant engaging in high-level product and business discussions.

What a strategy actually entails is a set of actions designed to achieve a particular objective. It’s like a route designed to get you from point A to point B. Now, there are many routes you can take, so a more interesting question is, What makes for a good strategy? For that, I subscribe to UCLA Professor Richard Rumelt’s definition: “A good strategy is a set of actions that is credible, coherent, and focused on overcoming the biggest hurdle(s) in achieving a particular objective.”

If you don’t know what core problem you’re trying to solve, it doesn’t help to brainstorm a bunch of solutions.Tweet this

Let’s begin by breaking this down into discrete parts:

  • Achieving a particular objective: It should be very clear what success looks like.
  • Set of actions: There must be a concrete plan.
  • Credible and coherent: The plan needs to make sense and hold up under scrutiny without any conflicting components.
  • Focused on overcoming the biggest hurdle(s): There should be a clear diagnosis of the biggest problems to be solved, and the plan should focus resources on overcoming them.

Given the above, let’s revisit my original list of so-called strategic actions:

  • Setting metric goals. This is certainly a part of strategy, but it isn’t enough. You also need a credible plan. Saying ‘Our strategy is to set more aggressive goals’ is the equivalent of writing bigger cheques and not having a bank account tied to them.
  • Coming up with new ideas. If you don’t know the core problem you’re trying to solve, it doesn’t help to brainstorm a bunch of solutions.
  • Working harder (and motivating others to work harder). Working hard is great, but don’t confuse motion with progress. Working harder when your team or goals are not aligned with a solid strategy will not solve your problems.
  • Writing long documents. This could be strategic, but it depends on the content. Beware of long, sprawling directives. Good strategies are usually simple, because describing and executing a highly complex plan across dozens or hundreds of people doesn’t tend to work well.
  • Creating frameworks. Frameworks can help to explain concepts, but they are not a plan. Having good frameworks is like having a clear map: you still need to chart a path.
  • Drawing graphs on the whiteboard. It may look impressive, but it’s a classic bad strategy: a lot of jargon and a lack of real substance.

So now that we know what to avoid, or at least scrutinize, the question remains: What should you do if you want to be more strategic? By investing more time in the following three tasks, new and experienced managers alike can become better strategic leaders.

PRINCIPLE 1: Understand which problem you’re looking to solve, for which group of people.

Imagine that you’re looking to ‘transform the future of transportation’. What should you do? If your instinct is to start throwing out ideas — flying cars! Ubers with Eames chairs! Hyperloop to L.A. in 2.2! — compose yourself.

Do you understand the problems with transportation today? Maybe you do. It isn’t hard to come up with a list because there are a lot of them — traffic, affordability, safety, pollution, boredom. The list goes on. Now here’s the hard part: What is the relative importance of each of those problems? Which ones matter a lot, and which matter a little? For whom do these problems matter? This leads us to our next area of inquiry and action steps.

UNDERSTAND THE ECOSYSTEM AROUND THE PROBLEM. Problems don’t exist in a vacuum. There are likely many other people out there who are also obsessed with solving any given issue. How are they approaching it? What’s being done well and done poorly? Which groups of people are being ignored? Are there opportunities for a better approach? It’s silly to start inventing with a blank slate. Understanding a problem well means also understanding your competition and the systems around which the problem exists. Do your research: competitive analyses, jobs to be done, audience segmentation, market sizing, etc. This work is what creates confidence in future ideas and what gives you a framework to evaluate them.

Imagine that your team is wildly successful in three years. What does that look like?Tweet this

UNDERSTAND WHICH PROBLEMS SUIT YOUR UNIQUE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES. You can’t solve every problem equally well. Which problems can your team solve better than anyone else? What are you or your team really good at? And what are your weak points? 

PRINCIPLE 2: Create alignment around what ‘wild success’ would look like.

This sounds obvious, but can be hard to do in practice. As a litmus test, imagine that your team is wildly successful in three years. What would that look like? Write down your answer. Now, turn to your neighbour and ask them the same question. When you compare your answers, how similar or different are they?

They shouldn’t be different. You both work on the same team. And yet, there are plenty of reasons why they might differ. You might care about multiple outcomes. You might track many goals. Which ones matter the most? What happens if they conflict with one another? And how does the success of your organization’s mission or the success of your business factor in? If the answer isn’t clear to all team members, there’s work to be done.

PRINCIPLE 3. Prioritize. And cut.

Prioritizing is really hard, because most of us hate saying no. Imagine this scenario: Amy and Bob are debating which features to include in their next product launch. Amy thinks doing X is most important, while Bob disagrees and wants to do Y. What’s the easy out? Doing both X and Y, of course. No one’s feelings get hurt, and they get to have their cake and eat it, too.

Except... Don’t be Amy and Bob. Time, energy, and attention are not free. Remember that a good strategy is focused. Focus is a strategic advantage that lets you move faster on what matters most. That’s why a tiny start-up with dozens of employees can win against a company of hundreds or thousands. The more your plans get watered down trying to do lots of things, the less likely you are to have a competitive advantage. Either X is more important, or Y is.

If you can’t figure it out, do more research to better understand the problem. The question to ask isn’t, ‘What more can we do to win?’ or ‘How can we make sure none of the things we’re juggling are failing?’ Instead, ask ‘What are the one, two, or three most important things we must do, and how can we ensure those go spectacularly?’

I tell my team that when the discussion becomes, ‘Should we ship this mediocre thing, or should we spend additional time that we don’t have to make it better?’ the battle has already been lost. The thing we failed to do weeks or months ago was to cut our scope aggressively enough. Either a feature or initiative matters — in which case, make it great — or it doesn’t. And if not, don’t work on it in the first place.

Over the course of your career, you may fall into the trap of ‘being strategic’ in the wrong way — and that’s okay. The important thing is to continuously learn from challenges, stay engaged with your team and reports, and invest the time in overcoming your biggest hurdles.   

Julie Zhuo (@joulee) is Vice President of Product Design at Facebook and author of The Making of a Manager (Portfolio, 2019). (c) MIT Sloan Management Review. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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