“How do I become a business strategist?”

I was recently asked for some career advice, specifically on how to move from a technical role to a more business strategy role, within a corporate environment. Like a lot of the questions I receive regarding career development (especially on LinkedIn….), the initial question was quite broad, a little bit vague, so I needed to frame it before responding.

At the outset, I should stress that I am neither a qualified career counselor (although I have done some related coaching work), nor an organisational behaviorist/industrial psychologist (but I have some formal experience of using personality profiling tools, and trained as a counselor very early in my career). Plus I have had a varied career path and some in-depth corporate experience to draw on!

I have never worked in a full-time Business Strategy role – rather, Business Strategy has been integral to the whole of my corporate and consulting career, whether I have been working in product management, market expansion, business development or start-up roles. So while Business Strategy can be defined (and practiced) as a specific discipline, from my experience it’s just another management component or business tool everyone needs to understand and apply, especially on a practical level.

First, my exposure to business strategy really began when I was in a product management role. So I it was part technical (requiring some formal qualification and subject matter expertise), part production (understanding the design and manufacturing processes), part strategic (managing the commercial, financial and market dynamics). That framework continues to inform my approach to business strategy, even in my consulting work – and helps in understanding my clients’ business.

Second, business and management tools come and go; some are mere passing fads, others are the result of changing technology or market conditions – so there is little point in trying to grapple with each and every one, or whatever happens to be in current fashion. Rather, I believe that we should each identify some core models and frameworks that work for us, which can also be adapted to different situations either organically or by analogy. For example, even the over-used Johari window and SWOT analysis can be useful techniques for mapping out markets, customer segments, or growth options. And having some basic accounting, legal and risk management ability is really useful!

Third, a key personal skill is being curious, and remaining open to possibilities. Simply asking the right questions (Q “Why do we do it this way?” A “Because we’ve always done it this way”) can uncover opportunities for improvement or alternative solutions. Without being a perpetual rebel, it is possible to constructively challenge the status quo, to find ways to do things better, more efficiently, more ethically, more environmentally friendly etc.

Fourth, if there was one thing I had understood better before entering the corporate world and management roles, it is the function of teams, the role of team dynamics, and the importance of open communications, pro-active stakeholder engagement, and bringing people on the journey with you. Never underestimate how stubborn, stupid, wilful or malicious some people can be – but often, they are acting out of a position of fear, ignorance or weakness. It’s rarely personal (it’s just business, right?), but it can feel that way. So, whether you are managing up, down or sideways, be prepared to overcome objections, present solutions (not just problems), and get buy-in early on. Making the team collectively and individually responsible for decisions means that they are personally invested in the outcomes. It’s also a way of empowering people.

Fifth, this leads me to the whole issue of decision-making. Companies will always make some poor decisions – but worse is sub-optimal decision-making. Partly this comes from not having appropriate systems and oversight (proper matrix processes, clearly delegated authorities, well-defined mandates, strong governance frameworks, transparent and accessible policies, and documented audit trails, etc). Partly this is a lack of cognitive skills (empathy, self-awareness, communication). And partly it is an absence of informed decision-making (e.g., understanding any inter-dependencies), and the misalignment of goals and incentives.

As a follow-up question, I was asked about some of the tools I have found useful for being successful in my strategy roles. Personally, I think the jury is still out on the value of an MBA vs gaining hands-on experience, or learning as you grow into a role. MBAs have their place, but they are not the Be all and End all of a corporate career.

I’ve also been dipping into a few of the “leading” business text books of their day, that were recommended to me over the past 15-20 years or so (Blue Ocean Strategy, the Long Tail of markets, defining Metanational companies, etc.). While they all provide some insights, and even some practical examples, they feel very dated in terms of current technology, business models, and market environment. Hence my comment above on passing fads…

Even though I worked for major multinationals for over 20 years, I think I’ve learned a lot more from working with and for startups and entrepreneurs over the past 10 years – and to me, that’s where a lot of the more interesting stuff is happening, notwithstanding the challenges of founding a new business. But I realize it’s not for everyone as a career choice.

Finally, no doubt there will be huge lessons for business and corporate strategy as we come out of lock down and it’s how we apply those lessons that will determine the next generation of success stories.

Next week: “There’s a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?”

 

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