Predicting Executives’ Ability to Think Strategically

Effective leaders need to think strategically. Organizations looking to develop leaders or choose someone for a leadership position, would benefit by learning what predicts strategic thinking. In a recent study, (Dragoni et al., 2011) researchers investigated how work experience, cognitive ability, and personality traits relate to executives’ ability to think strategically.


Results of the study indicated that more intelligent executives and those who were more open to experience exhibiting better strategic thinking. To determine the accumulated work experience of participants, the authors assessed the extent to which they had taken on different roles and responsibilities (i.e., contributor, manager, lead strategist). Extraverted executives had more accumulated work experience, and the amount of work experience was also related to executives’ strategic thinking ability.

The authors weighed the relative importance of the different predictors in their analysis. Cognitive ability predicted 78.9% of the variation in strategic thinking scores (in contrast, accumulated work experience predicted 7%, openness predicted 2.6%, and extraversion predicted 2.3%).


What does this all mean on a practical level? Cognitive ability is a great predictor of the ability to think strategically. In fact, it is more important than accumulated experience. However, executives who are less intelligent can make up for that somewhat with more work experience; it just might take them a little longer to learn from those experiences than it would for more intelligent executives. You can’t change the intelligence of the leaders in your organization, but you can expose them to a variety of work experiences in which they take on different roles and responsibilities. Bottom line: the authors suggest that in a selection situation for a leadership position, both work experience and cognitive ability should be used to make decisions.


Dragoni, L., Oh, I.-S., Vankatwyk, P., & Tesluk, P. E. (2011). Developing executive leaders: The relative contribution of cognitive ability, personality, and the accumulation of work experience in predicting strategic thinking competency. Personnel Psychology, 64, 829-864. 

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