Date posted: 24/04/2020 4 min read

Beyond the buzzword: Rethinking your approach to 'strategy'

Alicia McKay, strategy expert and author of 'From Strategy to Action: A Guide to Getting Sh!t Done in the Public Sector,' shares her top tips on how to strengthen your strategic thinking skills in the face of change.

In brief

  • Strategy is taking a bird’s-eye view of your goals and how you will move towards achieving them
  • Understanding strategy is everyone’s job, we just all have a different role to play in achieving the outcomes
  • Communicating your priorities can help you manage change and benefit both your work and personal life

In a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, 97% of the 10,000 senior executives surveyed selected strategy as the most critical leadership behaviour to their organisation's future success.

Based on a decade of experience working in government policy and strategic planning in New Zealand, expert Alicia McKay identified a lack of understanding and clarity around the concept of strategy.

Determined to break down the jargon and go beyond the buzzwords, McKay's mission is to help organisations, teams and leaders become more strategic, make better decisions and have a greater impact.

She's also passionate about helping business leaders - particularly women - find the balance between a happy home life and thriving career. McKay reflects on her personal challenges as a woman in the workforce today, and is determined to encourage more women to fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams by being more strategic about balancing family and work life.

We speak to McKay about the misconceptions around strategy and how to strengthen your strategic thinking skills to help you both professionally and personally.

Navigating change with strategy

McKay believes that strategic thinking is critical for navigating change in a workforce where the 'soft' skills required for a career in business is an imperative.

Her view is backed up by findings in "Future-proofing accounting professionals" Report by Chartered Accountants ANZ2. McKay says, "It identifies that a lot of the functions that are traditionally associated with finance and accounting such as calculating data, working with spreadsheets, projections, technical specialist knowledge, are prone to be automated in the future, because it's rules-based work."

"So, when we look ahead a couple of years, there is real disruption coming on the front end, and with technical and operational work. This makes skills like reasoning and decision-making more important than ever. We want to be fit for the future, and navigate this change well, so we continue to add real value in the workplace."

This is where a long term, adaptive response is needed. "Strategy is taking that bird's-eye view and having real awareness about where we want to get to, what we have on hand to do that, and where we should put our energy to get there as quickly and easily as possible," McKay explains.

McKay says the word "strategy" is overused, misused and misunderstood as a "plan of action". She encourages finance and accounting professionals to understand that strategy is about achieving big picture goals, as opposed to planning tactics and actions.

McKay recommends using strategy as a model for planning and adapting to change, and balance work and home life. In her Strategy 101 model, McKay breaks strategy down into three easy to understand parts:

  1. The why - the big-picture vision - the purpose behind what you are trying to achieve.
  2. The how - the guts of the strategy - understanding what our priorities are and the process you will take to achieve the 'why'.
  3. The what - the plans and actions to take to get there.

Strategic thinking can be leveraged at an individual, departmental, organisation-wide, and project-based level.

"Our priorities need to be 'instead of', not 'as well as.' We need to be much better at the way we communicate around priorities."
Alicia McKay, Strategy Expert & Author of 'From Strategy to Action: A Guide to Getting Sh!t Done in the Public Sector'.

Helping employees to understand the bigger picture

Working with her clients, McKay has seen first-hand the benefits strategic thinking can have on an individual level. Professionals report growth in their ability to collaborate and respond to change in an agile manner, while taking steps towards achieving the organisation's big picture plan.

"When people are facing change, what they fear isn't necessarily the change itself, but uncertainty about their own role and job. When you reveal the context and purpose behind the change, and explain how each role contributes to that, we tackle the uncertainty, and people connect to the meaning behind the work they are doing," McKay says.

When talking about strategy in the context of change leadership, McKay says business leaders must engage with their employees to help them understand the organisation's big-picture strategy and

provide them with the confidence that they need to believe in it, and to see how their role is making a difference.

"The future of organisational strategy is democratising. Traditionally we have left the strategic thinking to our board and executives. But a positive trend I've seen come through is more connection throughout businesses, because they've realised that sometimes the people around the board table or in the executive team aren't involved in the day-to-day," she says.

"We need to engage the wider organisation, and help them understand that strategy is everyone's job, we just all have a different role to play in achieving the outcomes. They've got to know where they sit and have a say."

Putting the Golden Circle model to the test

According to a study conducted by The World Bank in 2019, caregiving responsibilities can often be a barrier to an individual's paid employment opportunities. This is seen to be the case for both men and women, but especially for mothers who are less likely to be employed due to their caregiving duties and struggle with establishing a work-life balance3.

As a business owner and mother of three, things are constantly changing for McKay and she credits a clear approach to boundaries and priorities for helping her maintain a healthy work-life dynamic. McKay understands the invisible 'mental load'4 women typically adopt within the household and the toll it can take, having experienced this struggle first-hand when making difficult trade-offs in her personal life to focus on her business.

"Women in particular are socially programmed early on in life to assume the domestic workload, often on top of their job workload. We are less likely to say no to things than men are, and if we are struggling, we're more likely to internalise that and press on with it than complain," McKay says.

McKay reflects on her past aversion to saying 'no' and encourages women to learn how to separate their responsibilities. When it comes to the 'how' part of the model, letting your colleagues know early that you need help is vital in order to achieve the results you're after while under pressure. She says while women may feel like they're letting their team down by refusing a task due to their already heavy workload, in reality it can benefit themselves, their team and business in the long term to highlight potential issues and find a solution quickly.

"It is important to remember that you can't do everything, because you have only got so much bandwidth to dedicate. We often have this assumption that we can't let people down, which means devaluing or leaving behind other important parts of our lives. It doesn't have to be this way. Have conversations with people to make your priorities clear so you can focus on what matters most," McKay explains.

"Our priorities need to be 'instead of', not 'as well as.' We need to be much better at the way we communicate around priorities."

The impact these conversations have on the lives of women in the workplace continues to amaze McKay, and highlights how important it is to communicate your priorities well to respond effectively to unexpected disruption.

"Unless we have real clarity about what our priorities are and where we need to place our focus, we don't respond to change well. When we know what our bigger framework is and we get our head around what matters, it's a lot easier to respond to unexpected change in a way that gets us closer to our goals," she says.


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