Need More Strategic Thinkers? Here’s How to Hire Them

What firm doesn’t need to be strategic? In fact, what could contribute more to the success of an organization in today’s fast-changing world of business than having a large cadre of strategic thinkers? As a result, CEOs would love to have as many of them as possible at all levels of the organization. And when polled, in a survey of executives, a whopping “97 percent of the time” they selected “strategic thinking” as critical to their firm’s success.

Strategic Thinkers Add Tremendous Value

The benefits of recruiting strategic thinkers into a firm occur in these six strategic areas.

  • Big picture perspective — because they have a big-picture perspective, they help a firm avoid major problems and conflicts because they’re able to connect the dots and see the interrelationships between business elements that most others would consider being unrelated.
  • Forward-looking — they are forward-looking, so they “see the future coming” by being able to spot and internally share likely industry inflection points.
  • A global perspective — they possess a global perspective, which is now essential as firms of all sizes now compete globally for new business.
  • High trajectory — because of the way that they think, they are capable of being promoted multiple times and adding value to the firm for years.
  • Tracking current trends — because they are forward-looking, they can also spot current trends that may help their team in the short term.
  • Spur innovation — because strategic thinkers are forward looking, they love innovation. And as a result, they spur other employees to collaborate and to innovate.

Historically, strategic thinkers were needed exclusively at the top of the organization. But in today’s relatively flat organizations, crucial decisions are made at many levels. And as a result, now strategic thinkers must now be widely distributed throughout the organization. So, with all of these benefits, strategic thinkers are essential for continued corporate growth, innovation, and profitability.

The First Decision Point — Hire Them or Develop Them?

After years of corporate experience, it’s clear that developing a strategic mindset among existing employees is problematic. To start with, “developing your own” has a high failure rate and most also find it to be relatively expensive. Developing your own takes a long time, and with high turnover, the employee might leave before the development is completed. But the most significant issue is the current availability because if you need strategic thinking immediately, developing strategic thinkers can take years and you need them now. So, if your firm’s executives decide that it is a business imperative to rapidly increase their cadre of strategic thinkers, the most realistic option is to hire them from the outside.

A Strategic Approach to Hiring Them Is Needed

Finding these thinkers is not easy. You can be easily fooled because some recruiting targets only talk strategically. So, what is needed is a systematic data-driven hiring process that periodically validates each of the strategic thinker identification criteria based on their correlation with a new hire on the job performance.

Attracting Strategic Thinkers Means Large Job Boards Will Be of Little Help

Unfortunately, finding strategic thinkers to recruit is far from easy. Intuitively, you might assume that you could simply post job announcements that say “Wanted Strategic Thinker,” but that only works if they frequently read job boards. Unfortunately, most don’t, because most strategic thinkers are currently employed and are not actively looking. However, it never hurts to include the term “strategic thinking” as one of the requirements in your job posting because it will increase the likelihood that applicants will mention their strategic thinking and strategic experience somewhere in their cover letter or resume.

Attracting Strategic Thinkers Usually Requires Direct Sourcing

Rather than large job boards, in order to find them and to get their attention, you will likely need to proactively direct-source them when they are not actively looking for a job. The best way, by far, to identify strategic thinkers is by asking your own strategic thinkers to make employee referrals. You should then ask all of your employees to identify and make referrals to any of the strategic thinkers who they come across while they are doing research on the Internet and social media. Ask them to make a referral if they encounter a strategic blog/podcast, a conference speaker, an author or when they see the work of an individual who is clearly a strategic thinker.

Also, if you run across a job reference for a candidate in a previous strategic job opening who seems to know a lot of strategic thinkers, don’t hesitate to call them and ask them to make a referral. Also, consider re-recruiting strategic former employees who left your firm. And if they are not interested in returning, ask them for a referral.

Other Successful Ways to Recruit Strategic Thinkers

Recruiters can often identify these thinkers by using a keyword search on LinkedIn profiles looking for “identifier” phrases and words that are also found in the resumes of strategic thinkers (these are covered in the next paragraph). You should also survey your current strategic thinkers and ask them when and where they encounter other strategic thinkers. Ask for the names of specific social media and websites, as well as online forums where strategic thinkers “lurk” or hang out. And then have your recruiters seek out strategic thinkers on these targeted sites. Having your strategic thinkers write and comment on these sites can also be powerful in signaling to outsiders that your firm is full of strategic thinkers.

Identifying Strategic Thinkers From the Contents of Their Resume

In many cases, without knowing it, hiring managers and recruiters have numerous strategic thinkers among their current pool of applicants. In order to identify these hidden strategic thinkers, start by assuming that most recruiters aren’t strategic. And as a result, they won’t likely, without guidance, know what the “identifiers” for a strategic thinker are. So, you might need to provide your assigned recruiter with a list of previously identified strategic keywords and phrases (note over 25 of them are identified throughout this article). Once they know the identifier phrases, the recruiter can then use your firm’s ATS to conduct a keyword search of all of your applicants resumes for this job. Also, when reviewing resumes, look for job titles that contain the words strategic or strategy and also look for individuals who are members of associations that focus on strategy (e.g. the Association for Strategic Planning).

Words or phrases that might identify a strategic thinker

As noted previously, few strategic thinkers actually label themselves with the phrase “strategic thinker.” Fortunately, there are many other phrases and words that can indicate that a candidate can think strategically. Those “strategic indicator” words and phrases can include: strategic goals, multi-year, cross-functional, providing a competitive advantage and increasing profitability and margins. Additional phrases to look for include: more than 1 percent impact on corporate revenue, interdependencies, a global approach, shareholder’s perspective, an industry inflection point, connecting the dots, VUCA, prioritization, predictive analytics and data-driven decisions. Individuals that use words/phrases like integrated, strategic partner, think like an owner, failure/root cause analysis, or those who routinely quantify their results in dollars or revenue impacts are also highly likely to be strategic.

After a candidate uses one of these key phrases in their resume or cover letter, later during the interview the interviewer can, of course, drill down further by asking them to give examples and then to explain the impact of any of these words and phrases. And on a cautionary note, when you are sourcing potential candidates, be careful to avoid overly focusing on years of experience and strategic job titles. Because of many strategic thinkers, especially those working in the technology space, are relatively young and inexperienced.

Indicators That Identify People Who Are Primarily Tactical

Avoid making broad generalizations about the factors that make an individual a strategic thinker. For example, don’t assume that an MBA degree will automatically make a candidate strategic. As a general rule, most strategic people don’t work in overhead functions, but there are always exceptions to that rule. Be careful of candidates who are primarily inwardly focused, because strategic thinkers spend a lot of time focused on external factors. There are of course some exceptions, but those heavily involved in Six-Sigma quality measures are often not strategic because they deal in minutia. Because strategic thinkers are almost without exception rapid self-directed learners, be wary of candidates who are clearly not on the leading edge of knowledge in their field and their industry.

Phrases that indicate this is probably not a strategic thinker

Execution is important, even for strategic thinkers, but be wary of those who are overly focused on execution, tactical issues, tactical metrics, and cost-containment. In fact, a key differentiator is that most tactical people focus on cost savings, while strategic people focus on the revenue generation side of the ROI equation. And finally, be aware of those who use the phrase “aligned with strategic goals” because alignment is not measurable, and the actual success measure is to directly impact those strategic goals.

How to Identify Strategic Thinkers During the Interview Process

Intuitively, you might, early in the interview, simply ask a promising candidate “Are you strategic?” But unfortunately, you won’t likely get a reliable answer to that direct question because almost everyone would provide the, obviously, correct answer. So, instead, have the interviewer ask one or more question in these seven ways to assess a strategic thinker.

  • Ask how they learn about strategic issues  because strategic thinking involves continuous learning, you can also ask candidates to name the specific learning sources that they use to further develop their strategic thinking.
  • Ask them questions that reveal how important they view strategic thinking — start off by asking each candidate to force rank their capabilities and interests, from the most to the least important. And if strategy issues are not at the top, be concerned. An alternative is to consider asking your top candidates to list their “job acceptance criteria” in descending order, because this will help you find out if doing strategic things are high on their list.
  • Let them review a flawed strategic plan and then ask them to identify potential problems within it — an alternative to giving them a real problem is to ask them to identify the significant flaws or omissions that exist in a provided but flawed strategic plan.
  • Give them a real problem that requires strategic steps — the most effective approach by far is to give candidates who you suspect to be strategic thinkers a real problem to solve during the interview. Either give them a real unsolved problem or give them a strategic problem that you have already solved. Examples of the steps that indicate that your interviewee is a strategic thinker: Essential strategic steps that should be in an excellent answer include: checking with the strategic plan, reviewing company/industry multiyear forecasts, looking for inflection points, identifying and tracking key industry/economic environmental factors, and identifying and then consulting with key stakeholders across departments and business units. Some additional strategic steps that the best would likely include are: benchmarking to compile a list of the potential problems, identifying interconnected and interdependent functional areas, including predictive metrics, pretesting with your customers, and following up with a data-driven feedback loop after implementation.
  • Ask them separate questions that involve strategic issues and see if they answer them in a strategic way — ask them questions that require strategic actions. Like connecting the dots, identifying the relevant stakeholders across, a global perspective, or how you identify others who are strategic thinkers and see if they respond strategically.
  • Identify strategic thinkers by the questions that they ask you — take note of the number and the quality of the strategic questions that they ask and be suspicious when a candidate doesn’t ask questions related to strategic issues.
  • Look for strategic phrases within their answers to your standard interview questions — when they answer standard interview questions, see if they frequently use strategic thinker identifier words and phrases.

Identifying Strategic Thinkers During Reference Checking

After the interview has been completed, there are still some actions that you can take in order to be 100 percent sure that you have a strategic thinker. Start with references with the highest strategic standing because they can be helpful in determining if a candidate is a strategic thinker. But once again, be careful about asking a reference a single direct question like “Is this person a strategic thinker?” Instead, consider giving them a list of five of the candidate’s strengths and ask them to arrange them in descending order. Obviously, if the reference selects strategic thinking as the first item on the list, you have the verification that you need.

Be Aware That Thinking Isn’t Enough

One final note of caution: Even though this article is about recruiting strategic thinkers, I am wary of those who can only think strategically. Business strategy professors, for example, are often great strategic thinkers but their expertise ends there. Being exclusively a thinker is problematic within a corporation, because what is needed is someone who can think, and then act and then influence others to act. Because thinking alone, without a follow-up driving action, unfortunately, means that no bottom-line results will be produced.

Final Thoughts

As a recruiting expert, I am often asked by executives to provide them with a percentage that reflects the number of strategic thinkers, leaders, and innovators that a firm should have. But my answer is always the same. You can’t have too many, not ever. Because if you have an excess of strategic thinkers, smart executives will simply use the excess strategic capability to develop new products or to start new business units. Unfortunately, few firms ever end up with a surplus of this exceptional talent because their standard recruiting process simply can’t attract them or their traditional interview approach can’t accurately identify them once they apply. So, what is needed is a focused offshoot of the standard recruiting process that uses data to ensure that not a single strategic thinker is missed.

If you still doubt the value of these strategic thinkers and innovators, you need only to look at the success of the top five U.S. firms by market cap (AppleAlphabet, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon). The one thing they have in common is that they are all “serial innovation firms” that continue to make strategic innovations. And that only occurs because they excel at recruiting and assessment of strategic thinkers and managers.


If you found this article to be helpful, please connect with me on LinkedIn.

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As seen on ERE Media (July 17, 2017).

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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