How College Students Can Gain Strategic Thinking Skills

Employers Rank These Skills High on Their Wish Lists

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Strategic thinking ranks high on almost every employer’s list of desirable traits. For example, recruiters in a Bloomberg Business report ranked strategic thinking as the 4th most important trait - but also one of the hardest skills to find in job applicants. In a Robert Half Management survey, 86% of CFOs considered the ability to think strategically to be important – with 30% listing it as “mandatory,” and 56% stating that it was “nice to have.”

Unfortunately, the Robert Half survey also revealed that only 46% of employers provide any type of professional development. So, college students – and employees – need to take the initiative to develop these skills on their own.

What is strategic thinking?

The definition of strategic thinking may vary based on the person providing the explanation, but in its broadest sense, the term refers to the ability to identify critical situations, analytically and creatively evaluate relevant information, and determine the consequences of choosing a particular action.

Dr. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of psychology and human services at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla, tell ThoughtCo, “Generally speaking, strategic thinking is a cognitive process in which individuals think about, assess, view, and achieve success in their own and others’ lives.” She adds, “It is knowing how to assess a situation and pick the best option.”

In a workplace setting, strategic thinking can help companies focus on what’s important. DeLynn Senna is the executive director of Robert Half Finance & Accounting, and the author of a blog post on boosting strategic thinking skills. Senna tells ThoughtCo, “Strategic thinking involves finding ways to help the business prosper and going beyond the task level.”

While some people erroneously assume that management and senior executives are responsible for critical thinking, Senna says, “It’s something that can impact every level of an organization, and is important for those entering the working world to develop early in their careers.”

However, there’s more than just one component to strategic thinking. According to Blake Woolsey, executive vice president of the Mitchell PR firm, there are 8 characteristics that separate strategic thinkers from nonstrategic thinkers:

  • Future-based vs. reactive
  • Curious vs. isolated
  • Long-term focus vs. short-term focus
  • Willing to take risks vs. cautious
  • Able to prioritize vs. unable to prioritize
  • Nimble vs. inflexible
  • Life-long learner vs. satisfied
  • Creative vs. predictable


Why strategic thinking is so important

This trait helps individuals make better decisions so they can be successful on a personal and professional level. “Strategic thinking helps individuals focus, prioritize, and be more proactive in addressing specific issues and situations,” Marsden explains. “The main advantage to strategic thinking is that it helps people achieve their goals more quickly and efficiently - it focuses on problem solving and creating a clear path to your goal.”

Voltaire, the great French philosopher, once said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers." Strategic thinking also includes the ability to ask the right questions.

Dr. Linda Henman, author of “Challenge the Ordinary,” and “How to Move Beyond Indecision and Good Intentions,” tells ThoughCo, “When we start with ‘what’ and ‘why,’ we can get to the core of the issue we need to discuss or the problem we need to solve.” However, she believes that starting with the “how” question can lead to being distracted by methods.  And using the what/why principle, Henman says there are five specific advantages of strategic thinking:

  • Strategic thinking helps us zero in on the critical few as we put aside the trivial many.
  • Strategic thinking helps us keep a global perspective, which in turn, leads to dispassionate, logical thinking, not emotional reactions.
  • When we think strategically, we see patterns and anticipate consequences.
  • We can prioritize better when we think strategically.
  • Strategy keeps us focused on the future, not the present or past.

It’s easy to see why companies want employees with these skills. An organization is only as good as its employees, and it needs workers with the ability to make a significant impact. “Employers want big-picture thinkers with strong business acumen,” Senna says. “Hiring managers look for professionals who can use their expertise to develop and execute strategies and projects to help the business grow, increase profits, and maintain costs.”  

How to develop strategic thinking skills

Fortunately, strategic thinking skills can be developed, and there are a variety of settings and situations that provide opportunities for growth in this area.

Senna offers the following tips:

  • Volunteer to lead a project team, including one with colleagues from other departments. This can help you gain diverse perspectives and exposure to different problem-solving techniques.
  • Look for training opportunities offered by your company, an external organization, or even a college class or webinar on the subject. Professional industry associations can be a good place to start to find this.
  • Pair up with a mentor who can walk you through different decision-making processes and help you present your ideas to department leaders. This step can be especially valuable for those launching their careers.
  • Tap the power of data. Learn how to turn business intelligence into actionable recommendations for the business.

Marsden includes four additional tips:

  • Be proactive about researching and gathering information that will help you make decisions in the future.  Read journals and articles that will help you be more informed. And when you don’t fully understand something, ask questions. 
  • Constantly question your own opinions. How did they form? What influences them? Are they logical? Be open-minded to the opinions of others.
  • Learn how to embrace conflict and how to use it to come up with a creative solution.  Surround yourself with people who have different worldviews. This gives you (and them) an opportunity to learn from each other.
  • Be sure to take cognitive breaks and allow your brain to rest. Take time off for a brain break and put yourself in a different type of environment. This will help you develop perspective.