Good help is hard to find. You want people you can throw in the deep end on day one and can trust to make smart decisions and understand the context and impact of their choices. In other words, you want strategic thinkers.
I work with hundreds of ad agencies every year, and they describe this as their No. 1 challenge. They can easily find great order takers, but these employees don’t know how to independently guide clients, which means the senior staff has to oversee everything.
Some people have suggested that Millennials aren’t great strategic thinkers because they’ve never developed the ability to solve problems on their own. They had helicopter parents who overscheduled and over-orchestrated their lives, they were praised simply for participating, and they never developed real communication skills.
But, however this happened, we have a glut of order takers who have trouble thinking strategically.
The Brain Cocktail of a Strategic Thinker
To hire independent, strategic thinkers, you first must understand what that means. Strategic thinkers have:
How to Spot the True Strategists
Curiosity. They ask great questions, and they ask a lot of them.
Patience. They don’t rush to an answer, but take their time gathering all the facts and talking to all the right people before coming to a conclusion.
Big-picture thinking. They understand the context and long-term impact of their actions and are able to connect smaller decisions back to it.
Confidence. They’re not afraid to take a stand and defend it.
It’s a challenge, but you can identify true strategic thinkers in the hiring process. Here are some steps you can take to weed out the order takers.
Conduct professional assessments. This is not about personality, but ability, behavior, and motivation.
Test them. Give candidates a complicated scenario. Observe how they gather data, assess, interpret information, and formulate a recommendation. The recommendation isn’t the important part — it’s how they arrive at their conclusion.
Challenge them. Ask probing questions to determine whether candidates are willing to challenge conventional wisdom, speak their mind, and articulate their point of view.
Ask about their childhood. Look for candidates who started and grew their own businesses as children. Those who mention something they had to create, promote, and sell already know how to think strategically.
Ask about their hobbies. Watch for those who love brainteasers, word puzzles, mysteries, and other mental gymnastics that have an obvious answer — which is never the right answer.
Listen carefully. If candidates don’t ask you as many questions as you asked them, that’s a red flag. Strategic thinkers always have lots of questions.
When you’re assessing candidates, imagine them as your right-hand man or woman. Could you take a week off and trust this person to carry on? If not, move on.
How to Reform Your Order Takers
If you’re already up to your ears in order takers, don’t despair. There are ways you can teach strategic thinking to your employees.
Model it for them. Most leaders have been thinking strategically for so long that they don’t even think about it. To teach your employees how, you need to slow down, explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, and give them time to ask questions.
Coach them. Their brain might not work the way yours does, so help them develop their own process for strategic thinking. Ask lots of questions, and force them to deeply consider each step.
Give them plenty of practice. Create low-risk opportunities within your company for them to flex their strategy muscles. As they improve, raise the stakes.
Help them see the endgame. One reason why younger employees may not be motivated to push past the obvious answer is because they don’t understand how it impacts the big picture.
In today’s quick and lean companies, everyone is a leader. You need everyone from the newest intern to the industry veteran to be a strategic thinker you wouldn’t hesitate to put in a room with a client. Adjust your hiring practices to seek out strategic candidates, and start challenging the order takers in your company to dive deeper for the right solution.
Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry for over 25 years. For the last 18 years, he has run his own agency in the Midwest. In addition, McLellan owns Agency Management Roundtable, which provides workshops, consulting, and owner peer groups for hundreds of small- to medium-sized advertising agencies that are focused on growing sustainable, profitable agencies.