I was working with a group of senior leaders recently when the topic turned to the need to be more strategic. These leaders recognized that as they moved up in the organization, the balance of time spent on strategy versus time spent on tactics needed to adjust. The problem was that while they knew this in theory, they simply weren’t putting it into practice. Daily life made it all too easy to focus on fighting fires, making operational adjustments and completing a never-ending list of to-dos.

One participant (we’ll call him Sam) quoted Mike Tyson, who said, “Everybody’s got plans…until they get hit.” Here’s how the conversation progressed from there.

Me: “So, does a boxer have a plan when he goes into the ring?

Sam: “Sure, he has a strategy for winning the fight. But that all changes when the other guy lands the first punch.”

Me: “How long do they fight (focus on tactical) before they take time to realign and be strategic?”

Sam: “A round lasts three minutes.”

Me: “And the break between rounds lasts….?”

Sam: “A minute.”

Me: “So, their ratio of tactical to strategic is 3 to 1. One-quarter of their time is on strategic work. Even after taking that horrible punch, the boxer spends 25% of his work day taking time out to refocus, consult with others and develop a new strategy.”

What two lessons can leaders learn from boxing when it comes to prioritizing strategic thinking and action?

Lesson 1: Get a trainer. A boxer has the advantage of a trainer – someone who manages that one-minute strategy session, reminding the fighter of what they’d agreed to and helping him adjust to changing conditions. The person in your corner may be your boss, a trusted colleague or a professional coach. Make sure that this person is someone who knows your reality and its challenges. The most important quality is brutal honesty. No namby-pamby,  feel-good advice when what you need is a kick in the pants.

Lesson 2: Be strategic, as if your life depends upon it. Schedule time to be strategic and keep that appointment as if it were a matter of life or death. Look at your scheduled meetings and other events right now. Categorize them as “strategic” or “tactical.” Do at least one strategically important piece of work before you do anything else. Like a boxer, discipline yourself and use 25% of your time to focus on anticipating opportunities and threats. Failure to think long-term will put your organization “down for the count.”

Leaders cannot rest on the strength of their operations to overcome a lack of strategic alignment. Working harder or smarter won’t be enough to overcome the fact that you haven’t adjusted to the changing conditions. Your opponents work just as hard, and they are ready to win by a unanimous decision. Are you?

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