“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?”

 

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

 

 

The new education #2: Resilience

Week 2 of “What they should be teaching at school” – Resilience.

Life doesn’t always turn out how we hoped. Life isn’t always “fair”. And sometimes life just sucks. In the words of The Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Given that:

  • people entering the workforce now are likely to be made redundant at least 5 times during their career;
  • within the next few years, 40% or more of the workforce will be self-employed, contractors, freelancers, or employed in the gig economy, and therefore will be more reliant than ever on their own abilities to generate an income; and
  • an increasing number of today’s jobs will disappear through automation or other technology advances;

it makes sense to include resilience on the curriculum, to prepare students for the reality of the new economy.

As we are all too aware, having a degree or other formal qualification is no guarantee that candidates will get a job or role in the career of their choice. And even if they do, sooner or later they will have to consider a career switch – which may include having to make a sideways or even a backwards move in order to go forward in a new field or discipline. Plus some re-training or skill updates wouldn’t go amiss.

Resilience helps us to deal with life’s disappointments and overcome personal and professional setbacks. It can also help us to learn from those experiences – what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

While it’s important to provide a safe and supportive learning environment, I’m not a fan of  helicopter parents, so-called tiger parenting, let alone stage parents. Over-coddled kids are more likely to come unstuck (or go off the rails) at the first obstacle or challenge they face, especially in circumstances where they might not like the choices life has presented them.

I may be drawing a long bow here, but I can’t help thinking there is some sort of correlation between current concepts of modern parenting and education, and the higher incidences of allergies and mental illness – and maybe stronger resistance through greater resilience would help pupils cope with whatever gets thrown at them. Just saying.

Next week: Curiosity