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Aiming high, achieving success: Boosting your professional development with strategic planning

How high do you aim in your career?

Progressing into a leadership role forms a key part of professional development for some. Increased responsibility, credibility and earnings can all play into someone’s desire to climb to the top of the workplace ladder. 

Aiming high in the workplace can indeed come with its benefits, but the transition into senior roles can also bring many changes to the way you need to work. 

New responsibilities and accountabilities require a skill set that some may not have had the opportunity to develop yet. The technical skills required of a leader might include financial forecasting or complex project management. The soft skills are likely to include effectively leading a team, delegating tasks, or presenting to high profile stakeholders. 

Leaders are often responsible for developing long term strategies. A long term strategy is a long term plan designed to achieve an overarching goal, and is a considerable shift beyond creating a plan for a simple project. 

The long term strategy of a business can be expansive, often spanning an average of 3 to 5 years. Due to this extended timeframe, it often has to account for greater levels of uncertainty. 

In the ever-evolving landscape of business, the ability to craft and implement effective long-term strategies is paramount for sustained success. 

If you’re aiming high in your career as a business leader or becoming a leader forms part of your professional development, here is a six-step approach to effectively develop long term strategies.

1. Get to know your business:

The foundation of any effective long-term strategy lies in a comprehensive SWOT analysis. 

This strategic planning tool helps business leaders identify and understand their internal strengths and weaknesses, as well as external opportunities and threats. 

For your business to thrive, understanding their strengths and playing to these is crucial, particularly in a competitive and uncertain world. Leadersshould also have an acute awareness of their business’ weaknesses in order to address and mitigate potential challenges before they hinder long term growth.  

  • Strengths - What does your business do well? These could include a robust brand reputation, talented workforce, innovative products or services, or efficient internal processes. How can you find these out? Who could you talk to?
  • Weaknesses -Where do the weaknesses lie in your business? These could be outdated technology, lack of a diverse skill set, or inefficient operational processes. 

Understanding your business from an internal point of view isn’t enough. External factors need to be taken into account to gain an accurate picture of the environment and conditions a business is operating in, or might be operating in in the future. Businesses need to ask themselves:

  • Opportunities - What opportunities exist? For example, new technology, markets or trends.
  • Threats - Where and what are the threats? Where are the risks and events which may unfold? For example, actions of competitors, or economic downturns.

In every workplace, strategies are designed and decisions are made which take risks. But businesses can use a SWOT analysis to inform their choices and create a more confident and robust strategy. 

2. Get planning:  

Next, it’s time to consider the plan itself. A strategic plan needs to achieve a particular outcome but there are a number of considerations to get there:

  1. Inputs - What do you need to achieve your outcome? For example, customers, resources, a team
  2. Actions - What needs to happen with the inputs? This is the core activity of the strategy. For example, producing a product.
  3. Outputs - What is produced? For example, the number of products produced.
  4. Outcomes - What value has been created? For example, the profit from product sales.

Outlining the inputs, key actions, outputs and outcomes provides the necessary structure for developing clear plans and highlighting progress in the process. 

3. Get goal-setting:

To turn a strategic plan into reality, leaders need to master the art of setting effective goals, which allows the business to aim high as well as create the detail and the individual plans behind the strategy. 

Goals can range from short term to long term but regardless of their duration, they require a leader to outline the goal clearly, secure resources and involve others.

Six ways to set effective goals: 

  1. Setting goals, using SMART targets
  2. Ordering and prioritising tasks to achieve goals
  3. Securing the right resources to complete tasks
  4. Involving others in the most effective way 
  5. Gathering the right skills, yours and others
  6. Making tangible progress

4. Get granular: 

Setting goals will help to clarify the details of the plans involved. But sometimes, outputs and outcomes can often still feel quite long term, especially if the business strategy spans a number of years, or the business is aiming high with an ambitious outcome. So let’s talk about milestones. 

Milestones are a set of mini targets that businesses can use to ensure everything is staying on track. You can create milestones at key points in your plan to check that you are on track to achieve the overall outcome, as well as giving a sense of satisfaction along the way. The goals you have set can help to guide where you might place your milestones.

For example, a large business’s strategy may involve working with thousands of people, based in many different locations, over a 5 to 10 year period; using milestones such as opening one new store location, allows business leaders and others in senior positions to oversee progress as a whole, make decisions to keep plans on track and communicate smaller wins to motivate the team - another key skill for a successful leader.

5. Get flexible:

We have already made the point that a strategic plan is different from a simple plan due to its longer timeframe and the uncertainty which comes with it. In reality, this means that strategic plans are often not that detailed, rather a broad approach and top level goals. 

The most successful strategies build in a level of flexibility. Strategic plans are continually affected by many internal and external factors. Even though a strategy’s purpose should remain clear throughout, the route to achieving it may adapt and change in response to changes in people, technology, trends or the wider environment.

Building flexibility into a strategy will help a business to respond to such changes. But there is a balance to be struck. It’s not possible to have a completely flexible strategy as a business needs to be able to set a direction for what it’s aiming for and how others are involved. Too flexible, and the strategy stops being useful!

So how, as a leader, can you enable the business to  strike the flexibility balance?

Feedback loops. These ensure that learning or changes are built into the strategic plans at the right moments. 

These are likely to emerge through the milestones you set. For example: 

  • Inputs: Have there been changes in the things that the strategy requires?
  • Actions: Have you changed the way something is produced?
  • Outputs: Is the output as expected?
  • Outcomes: Is the value of your work as expected?

Beyond this, you might also encounter learning along the way. For example, with the support of customer feedback, you might learn that the shop needs to consider adapting the type of product it sells to respond to this new popularity.

It’s important to realise that no strategic plan ever works in the exact way it was originally imagined. Crafting and executing effective long-term strategies is an ongoing journey that requires a blend of foresight, adaptability, and a commitment to professional development. 

Business leaders must recognise the importance of strategic planning in leveraging strengths, mitigating weaknesses, and seizing opportunities. Regular milestones and feedback loops serve as navigational aids, ensuring that the strategy remains on course, while flexibility and adaptability safeguard against the uncertainties of the business landscape. 

By embracing these principles, leaders can aim high, fostering sustainable growth and success in their business and their own professional development journey.

6. Get started: 

Whether you are already in a leadership position, or its a professional development goal of yours, here are three steps to get started on developing long term business strategies:

  1. Identify your strengths and development areas in the skill of Aiming High - Take an assessment by signing up to Skills Builder Benchmark - a free online self assessment tool for 8 essential employability skills.
  2. Explore this interactive, bite size module to practise developing long term strategies on Skills Builder Launchpad.
  3. Practise conducting a SWOT analysis for the team you are currently in, or have a go for your business as a whole.

Go further - What other essential skills do business leaders require?

Aside from aiming high, business leaders will also need to develop other essential skills as part of their professional development. Read more on: