From HR leader to the C-suite: Developing strategic awareness

To develop your career beyond HR you need to demonstrate wider capabilities

Many of us succeed in our careers by becoming experts at what we do, and by then managing others so that they become effective too. This applies to people professionals just as much to those in other skilled functions.

But there’s only so far you can go within any specialism, and to develop your career further you need to demonstrate wider capabilities. Strategic awareness is an important example of this.

For our book Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to be a Better Boss, my co-author Julian Birkinshaw and I surveyed 15,242 managers worldwide to identify the 100 most important skills, split across 18 core domains of management.

One of these was 'developing situational awareness' (another way of saying 'developing strategic awareness'.) Here are the top five skills you need to do this, according to the managers we surveyed:

1. Understand how companies compete in your market (Prioritised by 36% of managers surveyed)

If you work for a company you need to understand how it competes: why customers choose you to solve their problems rather than your competitors. Value curves help you do this. To draw them identify the factors customers use in their purchase decisions, and then analyse how you perform on these compared with your competitors.

The trick is to build your strategy around the things you do uniquely well, and this is where situationally-aware HR professionals can do incredible things to boost their company’s performance.

2. Scanning for external changes that affect your organisation (Prioritised by 38% of managers surveyed)

All organisations need to adapt to change to succeed, and the best of them anticipate this and take early advantage of it.

PESTLIED – standing for Political, Economic, Sociocultural, Technological, Legal, International, Environmental, Demographic – is a useful acronym that helps you identify business-critical trends in all of these areas. Finance and IT have the strongest understanding of economic and technological trends, but HR professionals can bring insight into all of these areas and make an important contribution to senior-level decision-making.

3. Understanding your organisation’s core competencies (Prioritised by 48% of managers surveyed)

We all know about competencies, but do you understand core competencies? These are the most important competencies organisations have, and they’re the skills that help them serve their customers uniquely well.

It’s easy to draw up long lists of organisational competencies, but core competencies must satisfy three difficult conditions: they must be widely applicable to many different markets or areas, they must be highly important to customers, and they must be difficult to imitate.

HR leaders need to guard these competencies. They need to invest in them, build them, and take them to the highest level, and this is an area where situationally-aware HR professionals can make a serious strategic difference.

4. Understanding organisational strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (Prioritised by 61% of managers surveyed)

You may be aware of SWOT (Strengths – Weaknesses – Opportunities – Threats) analysis as a popular strategy tool. Used in a disciplined and systematic way it gives great insights into how an organisation can succeed. But often it’s used in an unfocused way, meaning that it does not contribute much to a wider strategy process.

You can get the best out of SWOT by only accepting precise and (ideally) quantified statements, and by pruning lists of factors ruthlessly.

5. Understanding the organisation’s mission (Prioritised by 62% of managers surveyed.)

Mission statements define what your organisation’s and people’s goals are. A well-crafted mission statement also motivates people and gives meaning to their work, and this is important for engaging, motivating and retaining them. Unfortunately many mission statements are long, convoluted, messy compromises with little guiding or motivational value.

As a senior HR professional you need to ensure that your organisation’s mission is at the heart of all decisions you take. More than this, you can champion improving the organisation’s mission statements so that goals are clear and the meaning of the organisation’s work shines through for everyone.

So why not try these 'tools' out? By exploring one in each lunch hour for the next five days you can transform yourself into a strategic thinker.

James Manktelow is founder and CEO of