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Strategic Thinking at the Top

Business schools and others interested in management education and development have vigorously debated how best to teach strategy to future leaders. Some experts have questioned whether the topic should be taught at all -- or at least whether it should be taught to managers. Often missing from the debate, however, has been any in-depth discussion of how individuals learn to think strategically in the first place. What specific experiences are important and how do they contribute? Moreover, what are the different ways in which people absorb those experiences to develop the ability to think strategically?

To answer these and other questions, the author conducted a study that identified executives who were considered the top strategic thinkers in their industry. The study then investigated the totality of experiences (educational, job related or other) that contributed to the high ability of those individuals. In addition, the research investigated the different ways in which the executives acquired their expertise in strategic thinking -- a process that typically took more than a decade The data showed that strategic thinking arises from 10 specific types of experiences -- for instance, spearheading a major growth initiative or dealing with a threat to organizational survival. Moreover, executives appear to gain their expertise in strategic thinking through one of three developmental patterns. These findings help demystify the process by which strategic thinking is learned, offering important implications for management development and the practice of strategy.

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