Stop Talking about Strategy and Start Working More Strategically

Does the word “strategic” get thrown around a lot in your conversations at work? Strategic planning. Strategic communications. Strategic thinking.

We use “strategic” a lot. But what does it mean, really?

Turns out, being strategic has everything to do with getting your nose out of your inbox, and instead looking at your work—and your organization’s work and goals—from a big-picture perspective. Then, you can see where you should be spending your time to make the biggest impact, instead of just spinning your wheels.

Strategic people create connections between ideas, plans, and people that others fail to see,” writes Liane Davey in the Harvard Business Review.

And whether or not you’re strategic now, you can learn to be, no matter your role.

“You don’t need a new title, more control, or bigger budgets to be more strategic; you just need to be more deliberate in your thoughts and actions. […] By having the courage to make choices about what you will do and what you won’t, you will greatly increase your strategic contribution.” – Liane Davey

In public education’s high-stakes, limited-resources work on behalf of students, working strategically is crucial. Our decisions can have lasting effects on the lives of millions of young people. Plus, we’re accountable to numerous stakeholders, who often have competing interests.

We have to choose the work that’s going to make the most difference in the lives of the students, families, and communities we serve. The flip side of that is that we have to choose what we’re not going to do.

Those decisions are tough and nuanced. We have to be able to zero in on why things are the way they are, and then know what to do to make a difference. That’s why working strategically matters, so that we can be sure we’re pushing on the levers that will make the change we seek.

At EP, we offer a “strategic proficiency” training to our Alumni and Partners to help them hone their abilities to define problems quickly, make effective decisions, and implement meaningful change for students.

We talked to a recent participant, Alia McCants, Director of Alumni Affairs for Relay Graduate School of Education, about why she signed up for the training, what she learned, and how all education leaders can work more strategically.

1 | Why did you decide to sign up for the Strategic Proficiency course?

I signed up because at the time, I had recently returned from maternity leave and was diving headfirst into launching a new department in our organization. Building a “start-up within a start-up” requires a lot of skill, and with motherhood came a new premium on my time.

Even though I felt that my MBA had prepared me generally, I was looking for some specific ways to apply the learnings of strategy to education. I’m also a total professional development geek, and I trusted that whatever EP was creating would be worth the investment of time and effort.

2 | How would you describe what “strategic proficiency” is, in a nutshell? Why does it matter in education?

In the training, the facilitators told us that people who are strategically proficient “are great problem solvers, link actions to outcomes, see through the chaos, prioritize to improve focus, and engage the right stakeholders.”

In short, I think to be strategically proficient is to make the right choices about time, resources, and efforts.

It matters that the people serving our children are able navigate around two challenges. First, there are a lot of shiny objects in the world of education. Chasing the wrong ones can have devastating impact for our kids (“Sorry, we spent our budget on this new curriculum that actually doesn’t increase student achievement at all, and now we don’t have any funds left to hire teachers…”).

And second, in a lot of high-performing schools and organizations, a lot of effort is being expended, nobly but perhaps not thoughtfully. I think it’s easy to fall victim to a culture of busyness, but what we see over and over again is that one day, we look up and realize we’ve been working around the clock toward something that isn’t going to create the change we want to see. It feels awful, and we’ve all done it.

Because of the urgency of the problems we face – persistent segregation, criminally under-resourced schools, and entrenched adult interests only a few of many – we don’t have time to waste on boondoggles.

3 | Did the course change how you think about being “strategic”?

Yes! Though I took a “Managerial Strategy” course in business school (because all business school courses have the word “managerial” tacked on to their names…), I really needed ways to take good strategic thinking and apply it to my work in education. The training really deepened and broadened my understanding of what strategy is, and – most importantly – gave me a number of tools that I use whenever I begin to launch into a new project.

4 | What are some of the learnings that still stick with you?

Well, not to give the whole course away, but I’ll say that I use the stakeholder management tools often. And I actually “turnkeyed” a lot of the tools I learned in the course to all of our shared services teams last month in a training. So now we all have a common language around problem identification, root cause analysis, and more.

Plus, my action learning team is still meeting monthly, and it’s been great to have their external lenses to weigh in on different initiatives.

5 | What are you doing differently in your work as a result?

I think that I’ve been able to focus my time on those things that would have the highest impact for our alumni thanks to some prioritization tools I learned in the training. When our alumni benefit, so do our ultimate stakeholders: the students they serve.

For example, at the beginning of the year there were a number of different ideas about how to engage our alumni – all good ideas! But when I applied some of the tools I learned in the training I realized that the thing that alumni wanted most, and where my time was best spent, was a space where they could connect online.

Relay Connect, our alumni platform, launched in February and in its first few months has way exceeded expectations for engagement. Almost 700 Relay alums are active users of the platform, which is crazy. And the more they connect and share resources with each other, the better they are for kids.

6 | Who would you recommend participate in the course?

I think it’s obviously applicable for people launching new initiatives, people and/or project managers, and organizational leaders. But it’s also useful for anyone who is looking to grow their leadership or who’s working on a team of people. I think the course is useful for anyone who’s making a decision about how to move something forward. So basically, everyone working in education!

A strategy is simply defined as “a plan to do something in the future.” If you have a plan to do something in the future (and if you’re working in education, you do…), the course will give you tools to make that plan stronger, and your execution of it smarter and better.

Want to fast-track your own strategic proficiency? Sign up for Education Pioneers’ Strategic Proficiency training. In this targeted training program, you’ll join a cohort of education sector professionals and become an adept strategic leader, regardless of what level or function you represent in your organization.


Dawnell Powell is a Manager on the Career Advancement team at Education Pioneers. She is responsible for ensuring that Alumni are aware of opportunities to gain the skills necessary to transform education. Dawnell has a passion for leadership development and lifelong learning.


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