I recently watched the movie Chef starring Jon Favreau. It is a story of a highly regarded chef (Favreau) who loses his job at a successful restaurant because he refuses to offer the popular menu items that fill the restaurant with customers. Favreau yearns to serve up more creative yet edgier fare, but the cantankerous restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) disagrees and doesn't want to risk losing customers. The chef starts his own food truck business and earns a happy Hollywood ending.
Although sappy at times, it is a story of following one's path, of redemption, and realizing your dreams.
This story is relevant because it crystalized my belief that there are doers and leaders in every profession.
I asked myself what role would I want to play if I worked in a restaurant. There is no doubt I would want to be the executive chef. I am a control freak, just like Favreau's character, and would need the power to execute my vision. Yet, behind every successful business there are also necessary role players (individual contributors), such as the wait staff, sous chefs, and dishwashers. They make things happen nightly to ensure the best possible experience for the customer.
I bring this up because candidates frequently ask me for advice on how to transition from being a role player into management and leadership. The motivations cited vary from wanting higher pay, more control, ability to make a greater impact, or simply wanting to be the top dog in their area of expertise. They want to move from being line staff to eventually running the restaurant.
As a professional you will find no shortage of advice on how to get to the top. And in general, they all have some value and truth.
But in my years as a recruiter, as well as a hiring manager, I've come to the conclusion that the one characteristic that separates individual contributors from true leaders is this: the ability to distinguish, understand, process, and apply the difference between tactics and strategy.
I've interviewed enough candidates and debriefed with enough executive interview committees, boards, and investors to realize that the professionals that rise to the top possess sound strategic thinking.
What is strategic thinking? It is the innate understanding of seeing beyond the day-to-day execution and management of performing one's job, but also having a long-term vision of what is necessary or possible in the future to position the organization for success.
In contrast, the mindset of an individual contributor (IC) is quite different. The IC role player will tend to be more myopic and focus on the needs immediately in front of them and what is required to be productive. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is their job.
But to make the transition from lC to a leadership role, you will need to think at a macro level.
When you start thinking both tactically and strategically, everything falls into place: your decisions and the decisions of others will make sense, you will better understand and be more sympathetic of other's circumstances, you will be in a better position to ask the right questions, communicate clearly and effectively, and ultimately make the right choices to move your organization forward.
Regardless of your level within a company, if you can think both tactically and strategically, you will distinguish yourself from the herd and eventually earn notice from leadership, and likely a promotion towards the role and career you want to have.