How to boost your strategic thinking skills

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Whether you’re a financial manager or staff accountant, chances are good that you spend your days in meetings, with clients and on daily tasks. That’s all well and good, but your packed schedule doesn’t leave you much time to reflect and build strategic thinking skills. Concentrating on immediate business needs can be a bit like working with blinders on. You’re so focused on your to-do list and putting out fires that you may be neglecting the big picture.

If this sounds like you, it’s time to take off those blinders. Accounting and finance executives need to have a master plan to grow their business, and employers’ prize accountants and analysts who possess strategic thinking skills, leadership and effective communication.

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But strategic thinking doesn’t always come naturally, and both managers and accounting professionals themselves may need help to go beyond just “getting the job done.” While formal employee training opportunities can support your development of strategic thinking skills, it is how you use these skills in practice will help to cement your expertise.

Here are five ways for you, your employees and you finance team to become more innovative and forward thinking.

1. Forge new relationships

Innovation requires different perspectives and new ideas. Strategic thinking is hard when you or your staff work in a silo, which reduces the supply of fresh input. To shake things up, find opportunities to learn from colleagues outside of finance. For example, volunteer to collaborate with IT when upgrading your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. To prepare for the rollout of a new financial service, work with the creative department to design the marketing campaign. The more you know about other aspects of the business, the better you’ll be able to connect the dots and think strategically.

2. Always question and think deeper

As you go through your workday, make it a habit to consider whether something could be done smarter. Don’t get comfortable with the status quo. Questioning yourself forces you to think deeper and possibly come up with better strategies. Asking others questions helps you consider and realise different perspectives. Pick colleagues’ brains about what they do, how they do it, their best practices, the mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learned from them. Digging below the surface can uncover new opportunities and keep your strategic thinking skills sharp.

3. Never stop learning and building skills

​The accounting and finance fields are constantly changing, and old tactics may not be as effective in light of new developments. Your strategic thinking skills remain relevant when you’re well versed in compliance issues, human resources trends and the latest technologies. So, if you’re a manager, help your team stay up to date with regular training in key areas such as compliance and reporting standards. If you’re an entry-level finance professional, be proactive and ask for training. There’s no need to wait for your manager to hand you learning opportunities. Seek them out yourself by reading trade publications and networking with other industry professionals.

4. Make decisions and take risks

As with any expertise, the best way to hone your strategic thinking skills is by doing. Don’t let yourself fall into a state of “analysis paralysis” for fear of making missteps, but don’t overthink it, either. Balance the pros and cons, the benefits and risks, and then make a decision.

An important note to managers: Don’t punish employees for taking calculated risks. While you shouldn’t advocate for recklessness, you do want to encourage your staff to innovate. A wrong decision isn’t a failure if employees become more discerning and aware as a result of it.

5. Take time to recharge

Periods of inactivity are essential not only for avoiding burnout, but for being more enterprising. Strategic thinking skills flourish during downtime, when the brain has a chance to decompress, wander and envisage different outcomes. So don’t feel guilty about taking short breaks during the workday, making time for a real lunch and going on holidays. When you give yourself permission to get away from the office, you’ll come back to your job sharper than before.

Another note to managers: You play a big role in helping your employees recharge. This may require you to be more perceptive on the workloads of your team, and stress levels. For some organisations, they may need to go further and consider a cultural shift. So persuade your workaholics to use their annual leave, and set the example by taking time off and unplugging yourself.

Strategic thinking skills don’t appear overnight. In fact, they don’t develop after a single seminar, either. Becoming a more visionary finance professional is a life-long process, requiring time, personal initiative and perseverance. But the rewards — career advancement, greater job satisfaction, happy clients and stakeholders — are more than worth the effort.

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