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Leadership, Strategy

More than half of finance executives in a global study by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and Institute of Management Accountants identified strategic thinking as critical to professional development for chief financial officers. These skills are just as important for CPAs in public accounting who want to advance in their careers or grow their firms. Strategic thinking is the key to delivering exceptional value in today’s rapidly changing, competitive business world.


This article describes the essence of strategic thinking and how it differs from traditional strategic planning, along with ways to develop strategic thinking and build it into your regular routines as a finance leader.


What is strategic thinking?

Strategic thinking is the process of exploring new and improved approaches to meet customer needs. It is future-oriented, focused on future customers and their needs, not just today’s. It involves regular scanning of the horizon, watching for emerging trends in the external environment. These trends include concerns such as globalization, economic movement, demographic shifts, and regulatory changes.


Strategic thinking is also customer-focused. By observing behavior in your target market, you are better positioned to respond to changing customer needs and preferences. Strategic thinking opens the door to innovation as you discover new ways to serve existing customers, as well as new customers. The best strategic thinkers open new frontiers. Consider Steve Jobs and the iPhone as a prime example.


Strategic thinking requires an awareness of your industry and monitoring the competition. Successful strategic thinkers differentiate their firms from competitors by offering superior customer value and effectively communicating that distinctness to the marketplace.


Strategic thinkers possess a keen understanding of their firm’s capabilities and ways to leverage them for competitive advantage. They find ways to build or acquire new capabilities to capitalize on emerging opportunities. Strategic thinkers go beyond operational improvements to develop new business models that enhance profitability and growth.


Strategic thinking versus strategic planning

Strategic thinking offers several advantages over traditional strategic planning, which by itself is insufficient to compete in today’s marketplace.


  • Strategic planning concludes with a static report that often ends up gathering dust on a bookshelf. Strategic thinking is continuous, nimble, and dynamic.
  • Strategic planning is a more rigid process. Strategic thinking is agile and flexible.
  • Strategic planning often becomes a destination in and of itself. Strategic thinking is a journey, a means more than an end.
  • Strategic planning is viewed as a project or an event. Strategic thinking is an ongoing process.


In most firms, strategic planning is at best an annual exercise. It’s valuable in that it prompts leaders to pause to evaluate their firms, scan the horizon, think about their customers, and establish goals and priorities. However, it doesn’t happen frequently or fast enough to address the challenges of a rapidly changing environment. Adding strategic thinking to your skillset will multiply your value — to your firm as well as to your customers.


Develop strategic thinking skills

Leaders with strategic planning experience are familiar with SWOT analysis — the assessment of a firm’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Strategy professor and consultant Stanley Abraham suggests building on that foundation as a step to develop strategic thinking skills.


Abraham offers six questions to go beyond SWOT analysis and cultivate deeper, “out-of-the-box” strategic thinking:


  1. What other type of customer could benefit from our product (service), even if used in a different way?
  2. What other products (services) could we produce for the same customer?
  3. What other products (services) could we produce, for any customers, that use the skills, techniques, technologies, and know-how that we have?
  4. Is there a way of reinventing our business model that would give us a competitive edge?
  5. What unmet needs do people or companies have that we could meet, even if it means acquiring the necessary know-how and expertise?
  6. What are the highest growth industries now and in the foreseeable future?


Regularly asking these questions and others will stretch your thinking to generate new approaches to meet customer needs and grow your firm in the process.


Build strategic thinking into your routines

The typical pattern in this deadline-driven profession is to run from one thing to the next without pausing to think about the future viability of the business itself. It’s easy to work in the business and never work on it. Or to become reactive, rather than proactive.


Here are a few tips to build strategic thinking into your routines:


Set aside TIME. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner calls this “the importance of scheduling nothing.” Weiner blocks out 90 to 120 minutes each day for high-level activities such as strategic thinking. Schedule a recurring appointment with yourself for strategic thinking every week, if not daily. Guard that time as the most important meeting of your week or day.


Find a PLACE. Get away from your office and the day-to-day operational duties that reside there. My best strategic thinking happens in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and libraries. The white noise and a great cup of coffee add to the pleasure of knowing I’m doing what’s most important for my business.


Get OFFLINE. You may need to be online for reading and research. But get offline to do your best, undistracted thinking. A pen and notebook are the only tools I need.


Engage your TEAM. Assign each team member one of the questions above. Gather periodically as a team to discuss what you’re thinking and explore new opportunities together.


Expand your strategic thinking skills and multiply your value as a finance leader.



This article was first published in the May-June issue of the Wisconsin Institute of CPAs On Balance magazine. Click here to view the article as it appeared in the magazine.


Productivity, Strategy

This is the second of a two-part series of articles. Visit my blog to read the first article, Jump Start Q2 with a Personal Quarterly Offsite Meeting.


As highlighted in my previous article, I recommend the QWD Planning Cycle to coaching clients as a way to better establish and achieve their most important goals. It consists of a series of meetings with oneself to ensure follow-through on good intentions. These meetings include the following:


  • Quarterly Offsite
  • Weekly Planning
  • Daily Tactical


After you complete the Quarterly Offsite discussed last week, you’re ready to conduct Weekly Planning and Daily Tactical meetings.


The Weekly Planning Meeting


Here’s your opportunity to set the stage for a productive and fulfilling week. Set aside 30-60 minutes to reflect on the prior week and plan for the next one. Schedule this meeting for the same day and time every week to more quickly establish it as a regular habit.


Some prefer to do this at the end of the workweek (i.e., Friday afternoon), to gain closure and create a fresh start the next week. Others start Monday morning with this activity to jump-start the new week by focusing on top priorities.


I schedule my planning for an hour between attending church and eating dinner on Sundays. I don’t typically work Sunday, but use the weekly planning session more holistically, not just looking at my business but personal life as well. Here’s my typical agenda, which is like the quarterly offsite:


Pray: for divine wisdom as I engage in planning my week.


Reflect: on my personal vision, purpose, and values, as well as the habits and behavioral change I’m working on.


Review: my schedule and notes from the prior week, evaluating progress on both routine tasks and my WIGs (wildly important goals) for the quarter.


Identify: people or projects highlighted for follow up from the previous week’s notes. Often, these are potential new business contacts or opportunities that emerged during the prior week’s conversations.


Prioritize: the most important tasks and projects for completion in the week ahead. I pull these from running lists I keep on 4×6 post-it notes of short and long-term projects. I also capture recurring items such as content development, administrative tasks, and professional development.


Schedule: the top priorities on my calendar for the week. Setting aside specific blocks of time to work on these priorities makes it more likely they’ll get the attention they deserve. That includes time set aside for strategic thinking, to focus on new and better ways to serve clients, as well as potential new business opportunities. I also review my calendar for regular coaching sessions, scheduled meetings, and personal functions, such as daily workouts.


Envision: the joy and fulfillment that comes from a well-planned and productive week.


Anticipate: that not everything will go according to plan and I will need to rely on self-leadership strategies to avoid being derailed by discouragement.


I love the feeling of confidence and clarity that my planning session creates for the week ahead!


The Daily Tactical Meeting


Truthfully, I don’t have the daily tactical meeting dialed in as well as my quarterly offsite or weekly planning sessions. Consider it a work in process. But here’s what I aim for at the start of every day:


Quiet time: to start with prayer, spiritual reading, and reflection.


Schedule review: as a reminder of meetings or appointments that day, as well as time blocks set aside during my weekly planning for top priorities.


Prioritization: to ensure I focus on my highest and best value work, rather than getting caught up in an endless sea of distractions.


Mental practice: to visualize a positive outcome from the day’s activities, and the behaviors, actions, and attitudes necessary to accomplish that.


My daily practice typically takes 15-30 minutes, with the quiet time consuming most of that on my most successful days.


Schedule These Meetings Now!


Nearly all digital calendars have functionality to schedule recurring meetings. Now’s the time to create each of these meetings with yourself. Color code them so they stand out from other scheduled functions. Set up notifications or reminders to ensure you don’t blow past them. Insert your meeting agenda or important points in the description or notes field.


Mark your schedule for July 1 to review your Q2 progress and reset the process again for Q3. You won’t achieve perfection, but you’ll advance beyond what you would have achieved without these proactive steps. Note the progress made and celebrate your success!



Is it time to shift your approach to setting and following through on important goals? Let’s Talk! Contact me via email or schedule a complimentary strategy call on my online calendar.


Productivity, Strategy

How was your first quarter? Did you achieve your goals? Whether you had your best quarter ever or fell flat on your face, now is the time to lay the groundwork for a successful second quarter.


To increase your effectiveness in Q2, implement The QWD Planning Cycle. I often recommend this approach to my coaching clients to better establish and achieve their most important goals. It involves a series of meetings with oneself throughout the quarter to ensure follow-through on good intentions. These meetings include the following:


·      Quarterly Offsite

·      Weekly Planning

·      Daily Tactical


This framework is influenced by Patrick Lencioni’s classic book, Death by Meeting, and Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. It works regardless of the size and scope of your leadership–whether you’re a solopreneur like me, the leader of a large organization, or someone who leads a small team within an organization.


Today’s focus is the Quarterly Offsite. Next week we’ll look at the Weekly Planning and Daily Tactical meetings.


The Quarterly Offsite


Get away from your office and all the operational details that reside there, so you can focus on what’s important for the quarter ahead. Find a coffee shop, public library, or park bench where you can brainstorm alternatives, determine priorities, and establish key initiatives. Increase the incentive to follow through on this meeting by going to a place where you enjoy spending time.


I prefer an analog approach to my offsite so I’m not distracted by email or other trappings of the digital world. Just a notebook and pen. Perhaps my earbuds and some concentration-enhancing background music (I like Focus at Will). If there’s an online resource I need, I bring it up on my screen and close everything else.


Here’s my agenda for this meeting, which typically includes a mix of personal and professional items:


Pray: as a person of faith, I seek divine wisdom as I enter the planning process.


Reflect: look back at the prior quarter, noting where I achieved goals and where I came up short. I also evaluate progress on the habits and behaviors I was focused on.


Review: consider whether my life has been consistent with my personal foundation (vision, purpose, and values) during the last quarter. Explore changes that will make the next quarter more in step with my personal foundation.


Establish: the WIGs (wildly important goals) I want to accomplish in the next quarter. For more information on WIGs, see The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. In a nutshell, a WIG is a critical initiative that can’t be accomplished without focused action outside of normal routines. Think in terms of a special project, change initiative, or new venture.


Identify: new habits and behaviors to create during the next quarter, as well as those requiring continued attention to take hold.


Your offsite may require a couple hours, or a full day, depending on the complexity and scope of your role. Once you make it a habit, it’s easier to get in a groove, but don’t rush it. There’s something incredibly refreshing about pressing the pause button to gain clarity on what’s most important in your life and business.


Do It Today! Put your personal offsite on the calendar for this first week of the new quarter. Protect the time like you would your most important client or customer meetings.


Next Week: come back for insights on a weekly and daily planning process to achieve the goals established in your quarterly offsite.


Is it time to shift your approach to setting and following through on important goals? Let’s Talk! Contact me via email or schedule a complimentary strategy call on my online calendar.