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Aardvarks or eagles? How to spot strategists

3 min read


This guest post is by Linda Henman, author of “Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat.”

Aardvarks are really good at one thing: eating bugs — sometimes 50,000 in one night! No other creature on the planet can match their appetites. Star performers in their own corner of the jungle, when they tuck a napkin under their aardvark chins, they produce impressive results, just like your hardworking employees can in their jobs.

Too often, however, in an attempt to do the aardvark and the organization a favor, a decision maker will insist the aardvark fly like an eagle. There are no flying aardvarks. You can certainly throw an aardvark out of an airplane midair, but you won’t end up with a flying aardvark. Being destroyed doesn’t motivate your employees, not the one who just failed or those who witnessed the crash.

But how do you know the difference between an aardvark and an eagle? How can you recognize those who can and will engage in the critical but difficult work of creating strategy? Whether making a hiring or promotion decision, based on the individual’s proven record of success, ask yourself the following:

  • Does this person understand how to separate strategy from tactics, the “what” from the “how”?
  • Can this person keep a global perspective? Or does she or he become mired in the details and tactics?
  • Do obstacles stop this person?
  • Can he or she create order during chaos?
  • Does this person have the ability to see patterns, make logical connections, resolve contradictions and anticipate consequences?
  • What success has this person had with multitasking?
  • Can this person think on his or her feet?
  • Can this person prioritize seemingly conflicting goals — to zero in on the critical few and put aside the trivial many when allocating time and resources?
  • When facing a complicated or unfamiliar problem, can this individual get to the core of the issue and immediately begin to formulate possible solutions?
  • Is this person future-oriented and able to paint credible pictures of possibilities and likelihoods?
  • How do unexpected and unpleasant changes affect this person’s performance?
  • When in a position of leadership, does this person serve as a source of advice and wisdom?

The core competencies that drive a particular organization may differ, but the ability to think analytically and dispassionately remains constant. The overarching question is this: “When acting in a strategic role, has this person typically performed as needed?” If the answer is “yes,” the person probably has the innate talent to be a strategic thinker and will just need to improve requisite skills to support the talent. If the answer is “no,” don’t gamble by putting this person in a more demanding position. As valuable as the aardvarks of the organization can be, virtually all organizations need more eagles, strong critical thinkers who can learn from mistakes and make bold decisions.