The Strategic Planning Skill That Is Most Important But Most Overlooked


August 10, 2014


There are many skills and abilities that go into becoming successful, some we focus on during strategic planning. Many here talk of tools, metrics and other mechanical devices as though we can wed technology and humans and have the result be human and we cannot. The one invaluable personal characteristic of people involved in this very human of interactions is to have empathy.



the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
Being able to place oneself in the place of another and to understand another person’s desires, fears and motivations is a critical skill in helping a group of people express their individuality in a way that is productive to the free expression of opinion but not destructive to the thoughts others that are just as valid.

How many times do we encounter a team member, board member or other colleague where the person seems to have no desire or interest to care about the other members of the team? The board member, or member of the group, who believes their opinion is the only opinion that counts? The person for who any sense of curiosity about the world or others is absent, as the person reflects a certainty about matters that reflects an absence for any need to question anything as they already have the answers.

Unfortunately, we see this every day. It is common among people in general and, therefore, common on boards and among staff and volunteers.

This attitude, the absence of empathy, hurts the progress of the group and potentially harms the ability ot the group to retain its members or even staff. Like that one kid in grade school that thought s/he was the smartest kid in the class and even may have been, but no one enjoys having that flaunted in front of them or reminded of it constantly.
If you have a group seeking the internal compass of their organization but the group has members that think they not only know the direction but also believe they own the compass, there is an exercise that can be run. I begin strategic planning work with about a week of interviews with key staff and volunteer leaders to get a sense of the composition of the attitudes of the group and where they are. If I discover the empathy quotient being in some need of repair, here is what to try.

This exercise is done in teams of two. There is one listener and one talker at a time. You encourage each listener to pay very close attention to what each talker is saying, and be prepared to openly state his/her belief of what the talker was saying and why the talker was saying it. This is not only a chance for the listener to hear what was said and repeat it, but to interpret what was said and reflect an understanding of it.

The talker will be expected to discuss with the listener a difficult experience s/he had with something either personal or professional. This is a story told about an experience that was difficult to deal with, caused some personal or professional pain, difficulty or challenge, and resulted in something being learned. The talker is opening up to the listener and we find whether the listener is actually capable of hearing, and understanding the difficulty being related to them. The listener is expected to ask the talker questions when the talker is finished – to encourage curiosity. If the talker related a sadness, does the listener understand the sadness and why it was sad? If the talker sustained some pain does the listener understand the pain and feel it?

Human beings are wired to be social creatures. What gets in the way of our being empathetic is, more often than not, experiences in our lives that caused some pain that resulted in our building barriers and silos around us that prevent us from being open to the feelings and beliefs of others. This frame of reference, the exercise of empathy, is designed to identify where that can exist in a group and help to break down the barriers that prevent some from being able to place themselves in the position of others and truly appreciate where they are, what they say and why they say it.

If one is incapable of understanding the thoughts of others and appreciating those thoughts for what they mean and appreciating the people from which they come, one will have a very difficult time becoming successful in strategic planning and working with a group toward a common goal.”

In the hands of one that sees those traits and works to ameliorate their effects, this can serve as a good beginning to a strategic planning exercise that is run by human beings, given shape and form by human beings, and implemented by human beings that hold each other accountable for their decisions.This sets the stage for a group of people with the right frame of mind to come together to express themselves freely and actually hear and appreciate what others are saying.

This very human of exercises, therefore, comes with all of the challenges and frailties of human beings and those are not overcome by technology.

They can and should be managed by other human beings with a degree of empathy that speaks to caring about others.

About gguilford

A successful executive well positioned to leverage extensive skill and experience in the business, government and political environments within which I have worked to bring energy, vision and skill to managing human capital, strategic planning, crisis management, corporate management, financial management, government and public affairs challenges. Positioning for the future in managing and directing change and as well as seeing and seizing opportunities others miss.
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