How to spot a strategic thinker in interviews

Most candidates will say they are—it's up to you to determine if they're for real

Strategic thinking is one of the most critical skills for higher education leaders.

But it can be difficult to screen candidates for this quality: While nearly every candidate will assure interviewers they know how to think strategically, they may not show it once they're on the job. What does strategic thinking really entail, and how can you determine if someone is a strategic thinker?

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University offers four tell-tale signs of a strategic thinker, and six ways to determine if a candidate has the strategic mind you're looking for.

According to Sullivan, a strategic thinker has a(n):

  • Forward-looking mindset;
  • Big-picture perspective;
  • Global perspective; and
  • External focus.

When determining whether an applicant or candidate possesses these four qualities, Sullivan says, you can't just take their word for it, since "most people tell you that they are one if you ask, and most assessments give you false positives."

Instead, Sullivan suggests orchestrating an interview, in which you use the following six assessment strategies.

1. Ask candidates to solve a real problem

Sullivan suggests providing candidates with an example of a challenge from your daily work. It can be a problem you've already tackled—in which case you'll have a better sense for what an answer should include—or something that remains unsolved. Make sure you carefully describe the problem, give the candidate time to think of a response, and then ask them to articulate the steps they might take to solve the problem.

Sullivan recommends a list of essential steps you might look for in the candidate's answer, such as:

  • Checking the strategic plan;
  • Testing early versions of the solution with the target audience;
  • Making adjustments based on early feedback or data; and
  • Measuring success after implementing the solution.

Sullivan also suggests remaining wary of the candidate who lists too many steps, which could indicate the person lacks focus.  

2. Ask the candidate to spot the problems in a flawed plan

Sullivan suggests providing your candidate with a draft of a current strategic plan that is flawed or incomplete. Ask them to identify its issues. "If the individual can't find a significant percentage of what you know to be the flaws and omissions, it's unlikely they are a strategic thinker," says Sullivan.

3. Ask the right questions

Sullivan proposes a few interview questions that might help you identify strategic thinkers, such as:

  • How would you identify the relevant stakeholders when working on a plan?;
  • What steps have you taken to become a more strategic thinker?; and
  • If you yourself were the person hiring a strategic thinker, how would you find the right candidate?

4. Keep an eye out for strategic phrases in your interviewee's responses

Sullivan suggests that strategic thinkers tend to use language revealing their skill. He encourages interviewers to look for words or phrases such as:

  • "Multiyear";
  • "Strategic goals";
  • "Cross-functional";
  • "Connecting the dots"; or
  • "Data-driven decisions."

How to turn vision statements into strategic goals

5. Assess how much your candidate values strategic thinking

For this step, Sullivan suggests asking the candidate to list their capabilities in order of importance to see if they place strategic thinking in a top slot.

Alternatively, Sullivan says you can ask your candidate about the "dream projects" they'd ideally like to work on, and assess whether these projects require strategic thinking.

Other questions that could indicate how much your candidate values strategic thinking include:

  • Questions about the learning sources your candidate uses to improve capabilities;
  • Questions about your company or school's specific strategies; and
  • Questions about your strategic competitors.

6. Listen closely to the candidate's questions, too

Once your questions are finished, the interview's not over. Listen carefully to the questions the candidate asks you.

"The right candidate will proactively ask their own questions related to strategy," says Sullivan. He encourages interviewers to take note of both the quality and quantity of questions related to strategic thinking.

The best candidates will ask questions that relate to:

  • Your organization's future strategy;
  • The opportunities they will have to contribute to strategy; and
  • The types of strategic projects currently taking place at the organization.

(Sullivan, Harvard Business Review, 12/13).

It can be tough to be innovative when you've got to take care of the daily grind. This approach can help


Next in Today's Briefing

600,000 students in limbo after accreditor is shut down

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague