Today’s business reality is not only “unprecedented” like these pandemic-era times, but it’s also uncertain. Humans are fundamentally wired to fear the unknown. For leaders trying to navigate decision-making, this uncertainty causes stress and doubt.

The psychological antidote is our ability to plan. While lockdowns and layoffs make it feel particularly impossible to predict the future, it’s possible and necessary for leaders to expand their foresight capabilities. The key to better foresight is a honed approach to strategic thinking.

For leaders, strategic thinking is a difficult skill to acquire because it is as much a mindset as a set of techniques. What’s more, workplaces tend to reward tactical responses to immediate demands over long-term vision and planning. As a leader, this puts you and your team in a bind — How are you supposed to plan for tomorrow’s problems when you’re recognized only for solving today’s?

The trick is cultivating and rewarding strategic thinking as an organization. At Aperio Consulting Group, we’re experts in utilizing workplace analytics and implementing research-based strategies in order to build high-performance cultures. We believe that honing your foresight as a leader during this period of ambiguity will better prepare you for what’s to come.

Why foresight is crucial as a business owner

Why is foresight such a crucial ability for leadership during turbulent times? Because good leaders know how to cut through the chaos to focus on what’s important. This ability is even more critical during times of disruption like the pandemic because everyone on the team is experiencing high levels of chaos, emotion, and stress. A calm leader who can cut through the noise and provide direction can ease employees’ minds.

What traits do business leaders need for better foresight?

But projecting this calm requires competency when it comes to emotional intelligence. Leaders need to first manage their own emotions and reactions — like putting on their own oxygen masks — before they can guide others. If not, their high emotions will narrow their focus, making it difficult for them to see the bigger picture. This narrowed-focus reaction is tied to our physiological fight-or-flight response: Human brains are wired to recognize threats and respond appropriately. While a narrow focus might help if a bear is standing in front of you, it doesn’t benefit you in a professional workplace.

When you need to manage the emotions that trigger that reactionary response, the pause-assess-anticipate-act cycle can be a good place to start. By maintaining a state of deliberate calm, you can better process new information and take your time to make a decision. Some situations require immediate action, but most will have more successful outcomes with carefully thought out next steps. After all, a strategic approach to leadership is 10 times more influential in the perception of effectiveness than other behaviors.

Pausing to assess and anticipate widens your focus, allowing you to see solutions that you might have otherwise missed. For example, I once worked with a company leader whose focus was extremely narrow due to stress. If he wasn’t so absorbed in his thoughts, he might have noticed that his team was happy and willing to pitch in. One employee said, “There are things we can do to help, but he can’t see that.” Don’t make the same mistake: Keep your focus wide so you can take in all the strategic possibilities and better plan for the future.

How to develop better foresight

When COVID-19 first hit, I approached it from a positive perspective. Our team used the slow shutdown period to focus on strategy. We worked long weeks, combed through market research, and discussed the future of our industry. And it set us up for success. It was difficult, but I wanted to know we were going in the right direction. Now, everyone is excited about our vision.

For the team, it was reassuring to hear me say, “It’s OK. We don’t know how things will play out, but this is our plan.” My optimism, transparency, and foresight helped them feel secure in my ability as a leader and the company as a whole. 

Are you looking for ways to maintain a long-term outlook during and after the pandemic? Here are three actionable strategies to help you work toward a new kind of 20/20 vision:

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1. Make time for self-care

If you’re stressed and burnt out, no other advice will matter, because your focus will be too narrow to implement it. You can’t do much else until you eliminate the stress. Get exercise. Sleep. Nourish your body. Take a day off. Spend time outdoors. You have to prioritize taking care of yourself. Personally, I like to relax by being next to a body of water. When you schedule time to decompress, you improve your overall mental health.

Our bodies can handle working long hours temporarily, but like an athlete who trains extra hard before a competition, you have to give your body time to heal and repair. Chronic stress and pressure aren’t good for our bodies — or our brain function. When we succumb to anxiety or are ego-driven, that’s when things go wrong. You must have enough flexibility and hope to know when it’s time to pivot, which means you have to take good care of your body and brain before you can think strategically.

2. Practice strategic intuition

You’re not a fortune teller with a crystal ball. Though you can’t predict the future, you can use your intuition to formulate your future action steps. This requires setting aside the time and space to understand your current reality and your potential future. Step back and protect some space outside the day-to-day to develop a broad perspective. If you’re always in the weeds, you’ll never see the whole garden.

Because of this, our team at Aperio has weekly tactical meetings, monthly strategy meetings, and quarterly foresight meetings at off-site locations. I always encourage my employees to take an hour of weekly thinking time to evaluate how things are going and what should look different. It’s about connecting the dots between the past, present, and future — What happened, where are we, and where are we trying to go? Once you have examined how the past and present relate, you can better forecast your future.

3. View your organization from a systems perspective

Make a specific effort to understand not only your department’s value, but also your organization’s contributions to your customers, clients, or constituents. Senior leadership meetings are important because you need time to comprehend this interdependence. That’s where you can leverage your energy to determine what to eliminate and what to maximize. Elimination is a difficult task because we want to cling to the familiar during times of disruption, but it’s essential to step back and make those decisions judiciously.

Create scenarios or hypotheses to test. Set your hypothesis, and see whether you can “kill” the solution while trying to test it. If your scenario works, that’s great; if not, you know to return to the drawing board. Testing and trying things allows you to see how events can play out and to reach your destination faster. Avoid sticking to the status quo because it only prevents you from moving forward. Instead, step back so you can view your organization from a systems perspective and make forward-thinking decisions that further your company’s progress.

Take the time to develop foresight

Generally, work environments reward tactical “doer” behavior. But when you focus only on immediate actions, you’ll never develop foresight. In 2021 and beyond, you need to take care of yourself, give yourself space to think and look at your organization from a systems perspective. If you can cut through the noise and focus, you just might see the opportunity hidden beyond the chaos.

AvatarKerry Goyette

Kerry Goyette is the president of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm that utilizes workplace analytics and implements research-based strategies to build high-performance cultures and the author of “The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence.” Follow her on Twitter: @thinkaperio.