The Difference Between Tactics And Strategy — And Why Success Depends On It

Photo: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
board meeting

Chinese strategist Sun Tzu once said, "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

In my experience with grooming both mid-level managers and senior-level executives, one difference I notice in people between these levels is their ability to adapt to tactics versus strategy.

What does it mean to be tactical?

Tactics refer to the skill of dealing with or handling difficult situations in order to achieve a specific goal.

On the other hand, a strategy is defined as a comprehensive high-level, long-term plan.

Being tactical focuses on tasks, concrete smaller steps, best practices, specific procedures, and resources. Meanwhile, a strategy is tied to purpose, goals, and vision.

RELATED: How To 'Future-Proof' Your Career For Long-Term Success

Tactics versus strategy: What is the difference?

Think of being tactical as a short trip. Strategy is a long journey a company travels.

So, a strategy is focused on the long-term, while tactics usually focus on coping with the present situation.

In contrast, strategy is for the future. Of course, you can always have a short-term strategy depending on the situation.

Senior leadership is responsible for setting the strategy for the organization in line with the values, objectives, culture, and environment.

Everyone else in the organization is doing their part in some form or other of implementing that strategy.

I've noticed that less-mature employees often stay mired in tactical discussions while the senior executives, when they find themselves getting caught up in smaller details, quickly switch to reference the strategy.

They are careful only to dip into as many tactics as is needed and not get lost in it.

How to become more strategic.

According to a 2012 study by McKinsey, the following three tips are recommended to sharpen your skills at becoming strategic:

Understand what strategy means specifically in your industry.
Become an expert at identifying potential disrupters.
Develop communications that can lead to breakthroughs.

RELATED: How To Focus On Career Advancement To Get Ahead In The ‘New Normal’

If you find yourself struggling to get promoted, observe your behavior closely.

Are you more tactical than strategic in your work? If so, try broadening your thought process and get to the purpose of why you're doing what you're doing.

In fact, if you practice this simple leadership skill of noticing when you are tactical and when you are strategic, you will find yourself getting noticed for your work by people around you.

It's possible to train yourself to keep a view of the bigger picture. An excellent way to start becoming strategic is first organizing your thoughts.

Before an important meeting, project, or event, spend some time thinking through what you've been working on. What are the key takeaways from that meeting could be and how do they fit into the larger goal?

Strategy and tactics both rely heavily on each other. Awareness of the two is a good place to start.

To be successful, it's essential that strategy and tactics work, hand-in-hand.

RELATED: How To Use Your Authentic Self To Boost Your Career, According To A Career Coach

Bhavna Dalal is a master certified executive coach MCC ICF, speaker, and author of "Checkmate Office Politics" who helps people develop their leadership skills, such as executive presence, strategic thinking, influencing, and networking. To learn more about her work, visit her website or follow her on LinkedIn.

This article was originally published at Forbes India. Reprinted with permission from the author.