Teaching Your Team to Play Chess

Playing chess game. defeating the Queen.I have written before about the importance of knowing how to play chess — mastering the art of placing organizational “chess pieces” in pivotal positions in preparation for future impact. In today’s ever more complex world (yes, it really does feel like you are now playing against three different opponents at once), it is not enough to have a single leader master this long-term game of skill and strategy. Now more than ever, you need to teach other organizational leaders to play chess as well.

According to a recent article in strategy+business, in a study of 6,000 senior leaders only 8% of those individuals rated as strategic leaders. Eight percent! Yes, that would appear to mean the odds are stacked against having more than one strategic leader in a single organization. However, all hope is not lost! There are steps you can take to build a strategic culture within your organization. Think of it as chess lessons. Not everyone will enjoy it or become an expert, but at least they will understand the rules of the game.

Lesson #1: Everyone needs to know the end goal. When you are transparent about where you are going, your people can do a better job of helping you get there. In the military, the concept is known as “commanders intent.” It came about because in combat (or in today’s challenging environment) things rarely go exactly according to plan. If squad leaders don’t know the ultimate goal, they might make a decision that makes perfect sense given their limited information, but could ultimately undermine the larger intent. Let your people help you be successful by making sure they are clear on the end goal.

Lesson #2: Encourage new solutions. As a general statement, those closest to the “front line” can often see solutions that may not be considered by those with a different vantage point. Is such input encouraged, or is it squashed by those with more experience or expertise? Discounting input because of who is offering it closes the door on a potential strategic advantage under the mistaken assumption that those who have done something longer can see it more clearly. Fresh eyes can observe a lot of things that those who see something every day overlook.

Lesson #3: “Failure” needs to be seen as part of the process. No one wins at chess without losing a few pieces along the way, and your team will never try to play the game if they get penalized for what, in effect, is part of the process. Make it safe to try something, tweak it as needed, and try again. The only way that is a failure is if you stop the first time something doesn’t work as planned. Make adjustments an expected part of the process and you will foster creative problem solving among your team.

Teaching chess takes time, but the fundamental steps above are a good place to start.

Playing Chess

Chess Players

I believe one of the responsibilities of a good leader is the ability to play chess . . . not the kind with pawns and rooks, but the strategic kind where you assess the gifts and graces of those on your team, consider your organization’s long-term strategic goals, and place your key “chess pieces” into pivotal positions several moves in advance of when they need to be there. To be most effective, you have to place them where the “other player” (be that a service recipient, a funder, a referring agency, a competitor, or any combination thereof) is likely to be two turns down the road, not where they are now. In addition, you have to keep your long-term strategy clearly in mind and understand the capabilities of each “piece” so you can respond to, but not be swallowed up by, the moves of the other player(s).

In my experience, there are a few guiding principles you have keep in mind if you want to master organizational chess:

1) You have to be clear on your long-term strategic goals. And please note, responding to a change required by a funder is not “your” long-term strategic goal – it’s your funder’s. You want to play offense in chess, not defense, because once the other player has you in checkmate, you’re sunk.

2) You have to understand the gifts and graces of your current and emerging leaders. I don’t just mean what they do well in their current role. Step back and look at what makes their eyes light up. What are they uniquely passionate about? What type of projects do they “run with” and consistently exceed your expectations? It is important to note that someone can be very capable at a task and not be passionate about it. (That’s the difference between skills and gifts and graces).

3) You have to be willing for your moves to baffle others, and occasionally that even includes the people being moved. But if you’re clear on your goals, you understand the unique capabilities and insights your staff bring to the table — which we refer to as gifts and graces — and you listen to your gut, you really can give Bobby Fischer a run for his money.

The other thing to keep in mind is that chess is a game of long-term strategy. If you need an immediate win, chess is not your game. But as you look down the horizon at who will be taking leadership roles and guiding your organization into the future, you have a unique responsibility to work the board, and move your ”pieces” into positions where they can have the greatest impact — whether it takes one move or four. Mastering chess requires the quiet confidence borne of experience and the insight to anticipate a move before it is made. No doubt a tall order . . . if it was easy, everyone would be playing chess.