“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?”


The “new, new normal” post-Covid-19

After the GFC of 2007-8, we were told to get used to the “new normal” – of low/slow/no growth, record-low interest rates, constant tech disruption and market dislocation as economic systems became increasingly decoupled from one another. And just as we had begun to adjust to this new reality, along comes Covid-19 and totally knocks our expectations sideways, backwards and upside down, and with it some negative long-term consequences. Welcome to the “new, new normal”.

Just what the doctor ordered: “Stay home and read a book!”

In the intervening years since the GFC (and don’t those days seem positively nostalgic from our current vantage point?), we have already seen ever lower interest rates, even faster disruption in business models and services, and a gradual dismantling of the trend towards a global economy. The pre-existing geopolitical landscape has either exacerbated this situation, or has been a prime beneficiary of the dismantling of the established structures of pluralistic, secular, non-sectarian, social-democratic and liberal societies.

First, relations between the Superpowers (USA, Russia and China) have not been this bad since the Cold War. Second, nationalism has not been as rife since the 1930s. Third, political leadership has tended toward the lowest common denominator of populist sloganeering. Not to mention the rise of fundamental religious sects, doomsday cults and tribal separatist movements. Let’s agree that even before the current pandemic, our resistance was already low….

Whatever your favourite conspiracy theory on causes and cures for Covid-19, it’s increasingly apparent that populist leaders of both the left and the right will use the pandemic as vindication of their policies – increased xenophobia and tighter border controls, increased centralisation of power and resources, greater surveillance of their citizens, a heightened intolerance of political dissent, a continued distrust of globalisation, and a growing disregard for subject matter experts and data-driven analysis.

The writing’s on the wall? Message seen in East Melbourne

There are obviously some serious topics up for discussion when we get through this pandemic. Quite apart from making the right economic call (“printing money” in the form of Quantitative Easing seems the main option at the moment…), governments and central banks are going to have to come to grips with:

  • Universal Basic Income – even before Covid-19, the UBI was seen as a way to deal with reduced employment due to automation, robotics and AI – the pandemic has accelerated that debate.
  • Nationalisation – bringing essential services and infrastructure back into public ownership would suggest governments would have the resources they need at their disposal in times of crisis – but at the likely cost of economic waste and productivity inefficiencies that were the hallmark of the 1970s.
  • Inflation – as business productivity and industrial output comes back on-line, the costs of goods and services will likely increase sharply, to overcome the pandemic-induced inertia.
  • Credit Squeeze – banks were already raising lending standards under tighter prudential standards, and post-pandemic defaults will make it even harder for businesses to borrow – so whatever the central cash rates, commercial lenders will have to charge higher lending rates to maintain their minimum risk-adjusted regulatory capital and to cover possible bad debts.
  • Retooling Industry – a lot of legacy systems might not come out of the pandemic in good shape. If we have managed to survive for weeks/months on end without using certain services, or by reducing our consumption of some goods, or by finding workarounds to incumbent solutions, then unless those legacy systems and their capacity can be retooled or redeployed, we may get used to living without their products all together.
  • Communications Technology – government policy and commercial settings on internet access, mobile network capacity and general telco infrastructure will need to be reviewed in light of the work from home and remote-working experience.
  • The Surveillance State – I’m not going to buy into the whole “China-virus” narrative, but you can see how China’s deployment of facial recognition and related technology, along with their social credit system, is a tailor-made solution for enforcing individual and collective quarantine orders.

Another policy concern relates to the rate at which governments decide to relax social-distancing and other measures, ahead of either a reliable cure or a vaccine for Covid-19. Go too early, and risk a surge or second wave of infections and deaths; go too late, and economic recovery will be even further away. Plus, as soon as the lock-downs start to end, what’s the likelihood of people over-compensating after weeks and months of self-isolation, and end up going overboard with post-quarantine celebrations and social gatherings?

Next week: The lighter side of #Rona19


Fitting your own oxygen mask first

Before I get into this week’s article, I want to stress that my reason for posting it is not intended to be self-serving, or self-aggrandising – I’m fully aware of such pitfalls, as captured wonderfully in The State of LinkedIn on Twitter. Instead, I hope it’s received as an example of paying it forward. And all starts with some advice I heard a number of years ago.

My erstwhile colleague, Dale Simpson, likes to use the following analogy when coaching his clients on career development, leadership and directorship:

“Be sure to fit your own oxygen mask first”

The reason being, how can you help others if you don’t take care of your own needs first? It’s not about being selfish, but about being present and able to serve others. It also recognises that in order to be useful, we need to work from a position of stability and resilience ourselves.

Dale also likes to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in his work. Both Maslow and the oxygen mask have clearly entered my own vernacular. A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a neighbour at my co-working space talking about the work he was trying to do to help others become more resilient and overcome trauma. As the conversation went on, it was clear that his own circumstances were challenging, due to insecure accommodation, erratic income and other factors. He had also had to overcome a great deal of adversity and other challenges in his life.

I asked him if he had heard of Maslow – he hadn’t. I suggested that he consider what his own needs were, so that he would be better able to help others. A little while later, I went back to my desk and found the above note he had left for me.

I’m sure once he manages to sort out his own circumstances, he will be a fine coach and excellent mentor, because he was very certain of his purpose – he just needed to adjust his own oxygen mask first.

Next week: Steam Radio in the Digital Age

Recap on the New Education

My series late last year on the New Education (Agility, Resilience and Curiosity) prompted several comments from friends and acquaintances, a number of whom work as teachers or in the broader education sector.

Some of the feedback expressed frustration with the rigid structure and expected learning outcomes of current curricula – some teachers feel constrained by what/how they can teach. Rather than taking into account the holistic learning needs of students, most primary, secondary and even tertiary education is fixated on quantitative results, much of it geared towards formal STEM subjects. Whereas, in early childhood education, there is more of a focus on well-being and resilience, along with core learning and life skills. (But of course, if that resilience, agility and curiosity is not re-enforced at home or sustained beyond the classroom during those formative years, it may be a wasted effort….)

No doubt STEM subjects are important (to build the core technical skills we need for the future). Just as important is the inclusion of the arts (STEAM), for without creative skills, it becomes harder to interpret and then apply our technical learning to new situations. And let’s not forget the importance of play, even in a learning environment. A friend of mine provides extra-curricula classes in coding and robotics to primary school children. She finds that once the students have grasped the basics, unless they remain curious and are willing to explore what they have learned through play, they can’t progress to adaptive tasks such as creative problem-solving or identifying bugs in their programs. So they get bored and frustrated. The situation is not helped by many parents who want to know when their 10-year old “genius” is going to get to degree level computer science….

At the other end of the age spectrum, it’s clear that if we stop learning, and if we stop being curious, our agility in adapting to the career demands of the new world of work will be seriously depleted. The need to pursue our goals, passions and interests was explored in a recent discussion about late stage career transition on ABC Radio National. A major point being that if don’t put effort into managing our career, someone else will decide our future for us. Or we end up resenting the work we do. Similarly, I get frustrated by some former colleagues, who reach out to me for advice on how they can find their next work opportunity. When I explain my own recent journey, how I participated in a number of weekend hackathons, joined various meet-up groups, and attended numerous networking events, they say things like, “That sounds like hard work” – well, of course it is, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth doing.

The final word on curiosity should go to style icon, Iris Apfel. She maintains that being curious, and having a sense of humour, are vital to our existence. In fact, she goes as far as suggesting that she doesn’t have time for people who are not curious.

Next week: Manchester, so much to answer for…