Strategic Acumen: Natural Talent or Something You Learn in an MBA?

By Marcus Coetzee, August 2008.

Have you ever wondered why some organizations fail to succeed, despite hundreds of hours of strategic planning sessions and a multitude of ambitious MBA minds behind the steering wheel? We already know that these organizations need capable leadership. New research also suggests that organizations need leaders with strategic acumen, and that strategic acumen is much more like an innate ability, than something one learns at college.

What is strategic acumen? It is typically described as the ability to guide an organization through our uncertain and ever-changing world. People with strategic acumen seem to have an intuitive ability to make sense of complexity created by multiple stakeholders and a complex competitive landscape. They seem to intuitively understand what decisions they need to make to prepare their organizations for the future, as well as how to persuade their stakeholders to support these decisions – much in the same way as Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped prepare and guide an apartheid South Africa to a stable democracy.

Research in over 1,500 published papers (many available from the Global Organization Design Society) suggests that our potential for strategic acumen is cultivated by our parents and school teachers when we are young, and already “determined” by the time we enter university or join the workforce. This is contrary to conventional wisdom, which believes that our strategic acumen is dependent on how many university and corporate training courses we’ve attended. Instead we should rather see strategic acumen as a talent, much like that shared by top athletes – where the talent exists we can nurture it through experience, mentorship and studies.

My experiences have confirmed these research findings – that the potential for strategic acumen exists in equal proportion amongst different races, cultures and classes, and within civil society, public and private sector organizations. It can take almost as much ability to pull together a fragmented community organization around a cause as it takes to steer a multinational corporation. However, much as with rugby in South Africa, there is tremendous talent sitting in poorer communities – people who have never had access to the full mentorship and training required to help them actualize their talent and put their strategic acumen to good use.

This research has significant implications. Our school and early childhood education needs to prepare children’s minds to make sense of the complexity of our modern world. Our industrial era education system may have prepared us to work in factories and bureaucratic corporations. It fails however to properly prepare our children to succeed in a world full of ever-changing networks of small and medium size enterprises.

Organizations should hunt high and low to find underdeveloped talent within their ranks and networks, since they need this scarce talent to both survive and thrive. The good news is that there are tried-and-tested tools to assess actual and potential strategic acumen. This allows organizations to find, develop and make productive use of staff with such talents.

When designing their structures and filling positions, organizations should also be mindful of the levels of strategic acumen required at each level. This is contrary to the practice of many organizations where age, race, qualification, or political connections determines who gets senior jobs. It has been found that that organizations function best where all staff report to someone who has greater strategic acumen than themselves.

Does your organization have good leaders with strategic acumen? If it does, then it will most likely have a successful future and be able to navigate the turbulence ahead. If not, then buckle in and prepare for a rough ride, and don’t forget to send out your talent scouts.

Marcus Coetzee is a business strategist who helps leaders to think clearly about the future.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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