News & Insights about Closing the Leadership Gender Gap

Leadership Lessons: Plan Like a CEO™


Women leaders consistently rate higher than men as managers of people but are consistently rated lower in the area of strategic acumen. Although strategic acumen must be exercised on a daily basis, one organizational ritual presents the perfect opportunity for honing and demonstrating these skills -- the annual planning process. In order to exercise and showcase your strategic acumen, you will want to plan like a CEO no matter at the level you lead.


There are four essential skills and attributes required in order to plan like a CEO:

  • "Soft eyes,"

  • Strategic thinking,

  • Understanding the "business of the business,"

  • Process ownership skills.

Planning like a CEO is an "outside-in" process. You begin by assessing the business environment and your organization's response to it in order to determine how your current department/function/business must change to respond to it. This is the opposite of most organizations' "inside-out" process of making incremental changes to current operations based on last year's results.You can develop and strengthen the skills needed to plan like a CEO as you lead from any level in the organization.

Soft Eyes

Soft eyes drive the outside-in dynamic of strategic acumen. If you have soft eyes, you have the ability to be alert for events and trends in the larger business environment and to discriminate between those that are high-impact and those that are not. Like the ripples caused by a pebble tossed into a lake, events in the larger business environment will impact your organization. Being able to discern, from an infinite number, those events and trends that will have the greatest impact on your organization is essential. A woman leader with soft eyes will be able to "register" a bomb explosion on a train in Spain, the strength of the Euro against the dollar, and the trend to offshore white-collar jobs. From these she will be able to determine which have the highest potential for impacting her customers, her suppliers, her competitors, and her organization.

questionmarkWhat, if any, events and trends in the business environment register to your soft eyes as events that will impact the function(s)/organization you lead? Which events and trends are likely to have the highest impact?

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking means connecting the dots between the high-impact events and trends you’ve assessed and your organization. Strategic thinking enables women executives to answer questions such as:

[Strategic thinking]

  • How best should my organization deal with the high-impact events and trends?

  • Which factors can we influence (e.g. legislation, regulation, customer demand, competitive threats), and in what ways?

  • Which factors should we simply respond to, or cope with?

  • What are the degrees of freedom we have, and how can we use them most effectively?

  • How do we translate these possibilities into key strategies for the organization?

  • Will these strategies create competitive advantage that will sustain our business?

At lower levels, you exercise your strategic thinking by creating a clear line of sight between the function or department you lead and the strategies of the larger organization. You must be able to answer the question, "How can my function/department/team drive those strategies?"

ceoplan1Business Acumen

Understanding the business of the business allows you to set clear goals and create meaningful measures. It is imperative that you understand how the function(s) you lead contribute to your company's growth, availability of cash, customer acquisition and retention, and return (profit margin x velocity).

If you are the CEO, you must be skilled at paying attention to all four and appropriately shifting your focus to areas that are out of balance. At lower levels, you must understand your department/function/team's role in driving each area. By understanding the numbers behind the organization's strategies, you can then define clear outcomes, the concrete measures that indicate your success in achieving them and the specific processes within your control that drive those outcomes.

Process Ownership

Process ownership skills, or execution, comprise the major job of a business leader. The skills discussed so far are meaningless if you don't have the ability to execute. As leaders, businesswomen own three types of processes which, if managed well, enable the organization to execute its plans: people processes, operations processes and strategic processes.

Plenty has been written about the leader's role vis a vis the people processes. Not much has been written about the leaders as owners of operating or strategic processes. Leaders who are capable process owners are skilled at making the connections between the high-level strategies, the specific processes and measures that can deliver higher customer service, higher margins, improved velocity and accelerated growth, and specific programs and initiatives which will improve processes to deliver the intended results.

This is the bottom line of an effective strategic planning process: defining the initiatives that must be successfully executed next year to permanently and sustainably improve your business.

As time moves inexorably toward most organizations' planning cycles, take the opportunity to assess and hone your soft eyes, strategic thinking skills, business acumen and process ownership skills. Move from a scan of the external business environment to the definition of initiatives that will improve the business. Having enhanced your ability to plan like a CEO, you will be able to produce an integrated plan that delivers key outcomes and showcases your strategic acumen.

Topics: Leadership, Career

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