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Crossing the Chasm from Tactical to Strategic Roles

The Right Support Makes All the Difference

After five years of exceptional performance, your Controller has been tapped to fill the recently vacated CFO spot. She has an excellent track record of achieving her goals, is respected by the Finance and Accounting team, has deep institutional knowledge, and is a smart, hard worker. 

What could go wrong? 


While any promotion involves change, the move from a tactical role to a strategic one is a major leap. Assuming that an employee can make that jump easily and flawlessly is a big mistake. Without the right support, even a top performer will likely struggle to cross the Grand Canyon that separates tactical positions from strategic roles.  

The Risks of Underestimating this Shift 

In our example, the Controller moved from handling tactical tasks, like ensuring the company maintains accurate financial records and overseeing the daily accounting operations, to the big-picture role of a CFO—the company’s lead financial strategist, responsible for developing forecasts, identifying, and mitigating risks, and advising the CEO and the rest of the executive team on critical business decisions, among other responsibilities. These roles couldn’t be more different.   

There are many such examples of paths that take an employee into the unfamiliar realm of a position requiring a strategic focus. And when a strong tactical performer is promoted to a role that requires very different skills and capabilities, they inevitably face a myriad of challenges.  

  • Their “to-do list” is dramatically different. Before, they handled a defined set of tasks or generated distinct deliverables. Now, their job is more open-ended and self-directed. For example, a strategic role requires time for thinking and reflecting—something a tactical performer may not be accustomed to doing. Often, an employee who takes on a strategic role for the first time is left wondering, “How should I be spending my day?” 
  • They struggle to stay out of the weeds. A strategic role requires big-picture thinking and a holistic view, which is a big shift from the more narrowly focused activities and deliverables that a tactical role involves. It can be challenging to make the mental transition to viewing things through a wider lens.  
  • They may be delegating for the first time. Letting go of the tactical work (and holding others accountable for it instead) requires a mindset shift. But that can be difficult to do, especially if you believe you can do the old job better than the person who backfilled it. In the worst-case scenario, the strategic work doesn’t happen because the employee gravitates to tasks that they’re more comfortable with. 
  • They might be forging a new path. When a strategic role opens, organizations often use the opportunity to reimagine the position and find ways to do things better. That can make the move even more challenging for an employee who is taking on a strategic role for the first time, since they can’t simply follow the old playbook.   

Aside from the difficulties the individual may face, the organization can suffer, too. If, for example, the team isn’t confident that the new leader can lead the charge, turnover will rise, and morale will drop. If the new leader reverts to executing the team’s work for them, no one will be nurtured as an eventual successor. And if the transition to a strategic role is too difficult, the new leader might throw in the towel—leaving the role vacant again, with valuable talent walking out the door.   

What Good Support Looks Like  

While the challenges are many, the right support can help professionals succeed in a strategic role that requires working in a new, unfamiliar way. When organizations embrace the value of providing targeted support for employees who are taking this leap, everyone wins.  

While every situation is unique, best practices like these have proven effective in helping a top tactical performer succeed in a strategic role. 

  • Use assessments to identify gaps. Leadership profiles and capability assessments can help you anticipate what the employee can do and is willing to do to succeed vs. where they’re likely to struggle. By evaluating them against the context of this particular role, you can identify gaps to close, potential derailers to manage, and strengths to leverage.   
  • Consider what you’re asking them to do. Are they expected to maintain the status quo (because it’s working well), or have they been tapped to disrupt the current ways of working? If the latter is the case, you’ll need to assess whether this individual is up to the task. In-depth interviews, case studies, and psychometrics are practical and effective tools for determining if an employee has the capability and potential to challenge the current situation and envision a new future. 
  • Create a targeted development plan. Once you have an objective assessment, create a development plan that provides targeted support, specifically focused on the greatest opportunities for improvement and enrichment. 
  • Provide “in-boarding.” Some organizations conduct comprehensive onboarding to help new external hires transition to a novel environment. But very few consider the equally vital need to provide “in-boarding” for a tenured employee who is shifting to a dramatically different role. The insights you glean from assessments and profiles will help you determine how to in-board each individual successfully.  
  • Leverage the power of coaching. Various forms of coaching can prove effective additions to your development plan toolbox, at the individual and team level. For example, if this is the first time the employee is leading a team, they might benefit from coaching on how to manage their former peers. Or if they’ve never collaborated across other functional areas of the organization, they might need coaching on how to navigate this new experience.  
  • Don’t make promotions automatic. Finally, while rewarding a great performer with a promotion is often the right way to go, sometimes the next-level position requires skills and capabilities they don’t have yet. So, it’s in everyone’s best interests to objectively assess their fit and readiness; and if they’re not quite there, postpone the promotion and use the time to help them upskill and prepare for the next big leap.       

None of this is to suggest that an employee must feel 100% comfortable in their new strategic role to claim success. If they are, it probably means they’ve reverted to doing their old job! Some degree of discomfort means they’re stretching and growing. And that’s exactly what you want to see. 

The Leadership Advisory Practice at Odgers Berndtson helps organizations discover and develop leaders, strengthen value-creating teams, and prepare for what’s next. Learn how our highly experienced team of advisors, assessors, and coaches can help your employees make the transition to a strategic role or tackle other leadership challenges.  

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