The difference between a strategic and tactical thinker at work - and how to be both

The difference between a strategic and tactical thinker at work – and how to be both

Imagine life as a chess game. In the early days of my career, I was so fixated on the individual moves (tactics) that I lost sight of the endgame (strategy). I remember one pivotal moment where my mentor pointed out, “Gillian, you’re thinking two moves ahead, but what about the next 20? Where’s your endgame?” That question shook me, and it really got me thinking. 

As it turns out, the word ‘strategy’ comes from the Greek word ‘Strategos’, which means ‘the art of the general’. A general doesn’t just plan the next attack, but strategises for the entire war. In business, the same principle applies. Strategy is your long-term plan, the roadmap that takes you where you want to go. Tactics? They are the pit stops and detours along the way.

Through my own career experience and now through my RISE Programs, I’ve come to see that strategic thinking isn’t just for the C-suite. It’s a skill every professional woman can – and should – develop. Just like a general leading troops into battle, you too can guide your team towards victory, if only you plan for it.

But here’s the kicker: To truly excel in your career, you can’t just be a strategist or a tactician; you need to wear both hats. A successful general not only has an overarching vision but also knows when to dig into the trenches with her troops. Balancing strategy with tactics is like blending long-term vision with short-term actions; it’s the golden ratio that propels you forward, allowing you to adapt yet stay focused, to dream big yet execute small.

So, whether you’re a budding professional or a seasoned veteran, mastering the art of being both strategic and tactical could be your secret weapon for a fulfilling and successful career. In this blog, I’ll explain the difference between the two and I’ll share my tips to finding that perfect balance to being both, so you can unleash your full potential and navigate your career journey with confidence and purpose. 

Let’s dive in and elevate your game from being just a player on the board to being the mastermind behind every move. 

What’s the Buzz Around “Being Strategic”?

Have you ever been in a meeting and heard phrases like “We need to be more strategic about this”, or “Let’s take a strategic approach?” These terms get tossed around so much that their meanings often get muddled. So let’s clear the air, shall we?

Being strategic is all about the big picture. It’s focusing on long-term objectives and the routes you’ll take to get there. It’s not just about what you do, but why you’re doing it – lining up every action with an overarching plan. If your company’s aim is to dominate the market, every strategic decision you make should be a stepping stone toward that goal.

Tactical Thinking: The Unsung Hero

Now, let’s not undermine tactical thinking; it’s crucial but serves a different role. Tactical thinkers are the boots on the ground. They’re concerned with the “how” – the specific actions needed to implement the strategy. They focus on short-term tasks, immediate problem-solving, and the details. Trust me, without good tactical execution, the best-laid strategies can fall flat.

Why Does This Distinction Matter?

You’re probably thinking, “Okay, Gillian, why should I care?” Well, my experience with countless professional women has shown me that understanding this divide is a key aspect of elevating your career. Strategic thinkers are often seen as leaders, visionaries who understand the business landscape. Tactical thinkers, while invaluable, can sometimes be seen as doers rather than decision-makers.

How to Be Both

The golden ticket? Being able to switch between these two modes of thinking. Yes, you can be both strategic and tactical, and it’s a skill that can truly set you apart.

  • Know When to Switch Gears: Understand the situation you’re in and what it demands. Team meeting to discuss quarterly goals? Time to put on your strategic hat. Implementing a project? Roll up those sleeves and get tactical.
  • Ask the Right Questions: According to Harvard Business School Online, “If you want to improve your strategic thinking skills, one of the simplest things you can do is ask more strategic questions. Doing so allows you to exercise your planning skills, become adept at spotting opportunities, and develop a more strategic mindset you can leverage throughout your career”. When in strategic mode, ask questions like “What are the long-term implications of this?” or “How does this align with our company’s objectives?” When being tactical, you’ll be more concerned with “How can we accomplish this task efficiently?”
  • Prioritise: If you’re swamped with tasks (as we often are), prioritise by asking yourself which actions serve the broader strategy. This will help you focus on what genuinely matters.
  • Talk the Talk: Learn the language that resonates with each mode of thinking. When discussing strategy, think of words like “long-term”, “vision”, and “objective”. When talking tactics, opt for “tasks”, “execution”, and “details”.

Your Action Step

It’s time for some ‘you’ homework! I love practical takeaways, don’t you? I want you to spend a week consciously switching between strategic and tactical thinking based on the situation. Jot down the details of your experiences, how it felt, what reactions you got.

Being a balanced thinker not only elevates your standing at work but also makes you a more versatile, effective, and yes, brilliant professional. So go on, own your brilliance in strategic and tactical thinking. You’ve got this, and I’m here cheering you on!