“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?”

 

30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The new education #3: Curiosity

Week 3 (and final part) of “What they should be teaching at school” – Curiosity.

If curiosity is supposed to have killed the cat, then in my case, curiosity probably changed my life. Earlier in my career, I was offered the opportunity to relocate overseas. When I asked my manager why I had been chosen, he replied that I had “asked the right questions” to justify my selection. In fact, I had no idea that I was in contention for the role – I was simply interested in the new project from a business perspective. I hadn’t even considered whether I wanted the role itself – but my questioning apparently displayed the right amount of curiosity, and I was seen as the right fit for the job.

Being curious means you are less willing to simply accept something as “received wisdom”. It shows that you want to make sense of things for yourself. It helps you ask why things are done a certain way (especially if the answer is “because they’ve always been done this way…”). It demonstrates you want to find out how things work for yourself.

The downside is you may be more disbelieving, more sceptical, and prone to being suspicious. It can also mean you distrust certainty. But I would gladly take a level of ambiguity over a sense of complacency any day. A questioning nature can act as a defence mechanism against hype, cant and bullsh*t.

I hope kids learn how to take their early curiosity (and not just their knack for asking “but, why, mummy, why?”) into later life. Curiosity is how we learn to find our passions and interests outside the formal school curriculum and the set learning model. Our natural curiosity helps us to make sense of the world. I don’t think I would have developed any real critical thinking if I hadn’t strayed “off piste” and explored books that were not on the list of set texts.

Recently, I explained to a former colleague how I had participated in a number of startup and tech hackathons, even though I’m not a coder or programmer. My ex-colleague asked, almost in disbelief, “why would you do that?” Apart from being part of my journey into a new career path, my answer was simple: “Because I was curious, because I wanted to learn something, because I wanted to network and make new connections, and because I also wanted to get out of my comfort zone.”

In my view, if you stop being curious, you stop growing as a person, you stop developing your mental faculties, and metaphorically, you stop breathing.

Next week: Looking back on 6 years of blogging