“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?”

 

Bring Your Own Change

I receive frequent requests for advice or suggestions on how to make a career change. Having been through a significant career transition myself (in fact, I am probably on my 3rd or 4th career…), I am usually more than happy to help if I can.

Networking Image by Ghozt Tramp sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who has had to navigate a career change will no doubt have been introduced to the concept of networking, primarily as a means to access the hidden or non-advertised job market. The strategy usually involves targeting a particular industry (or even a specific company), and approaching a known contact in that sector (or company) with a view to learning more about their industry, their organisation or their role – and hopefully to gain an introduction to someone in their network who might be able to help in accessing or identifying a suitable role or opportunity.

Now, I am a strong proponent of networking – both to learn and to share – although I am not a huge fan of “open networking”. So I tend to be suspicious of unsolicited requests to connect with me – especially when there is no defined context, or there is no specific purpose underpinning the approach, other than a general desire to access my professional network, or a vague notion of hoping to learn from my experience.

I appreciate that making a career change is sometimes very difficult, especially in the challenging workplace environment (thanks to rapid change, digital disruption, and the gig economy, etc.). Change often becomes harder the older we are. Plus, our path may be complicated the more niche our qualifications, and/or the more generic our experience. (See my previous blog on generalists vs experts.)

I also acknowledge that the transition may not be made any easier because traditional notions of “work” and “employment” are no longer as relevant or as valid as they were. (Conversely, Australia continues to enjoy relatively low unemployment rates, in combination with strong new jobs growth, and greater workforce participation.) Plus, many large employers are still fixated on hiring square pegs to fill existing square holes.

Do I think that more needs to be done to help people transition into and within the new workplace environment? Absolutely. Even if it’s simply to provide them with encouragement, or to challenge their assumptions about what a contemporary career trajectory looks like. (As a society, we are not very good in helping people to make sideways moves, or to adjust their ways of working.)

So, having gone through significant career changes and work transition myself, I am a great believer in “bringing your own change” – i.e., start doing what you need to, in order to effect the change or transition you desire. But what worked or works for me, may not work for you, and my career choices may not be the right choices for you. I can maybe provide some insights on why/how/what I did, but in many situations, I was very fortunate that someone was willing to take a chance on me, and give me an opportunity. Yet equally, I probably helped to engineer these situations because I try to keep an open mind, I maintain a sense of curiosity and I like to think I ask the right questions. By demonstrating flexibility and a willingness to challenge the status quo, I believe it is possible to create the right environment to effect the change you seek in the type of work you do, or the role you perform.

Next week: Equity crowdfunding comes to town

More on Purpose

Regular readers may be familiar with the name Carolyn Tate from my previous blogs on purpose, and the Slow School of Business. Last week, Carolyn launched her latest book, The Purpose Project, a distillation of the past seven years of her work, and quite possibly a road map for anyone wanting to take control of their own destiny at work.

I would describe The Purpose Project as a cross between a first aid kit for a disillusioned workforce and a survival guide for the modern workplace. But as with defining your own “purpose”, the value is in the mind of the reader, rather than in any prescriptive solution or outcome.

Having spent the past few years working with Carolyn at Slow School, I know that her views on this topic have subtly changed. Slow School itself initially appealed to, and was designed for, independent consultants (“solopreneurs”) and aspiring consultants (“corporate escapees”). But as the concept of finding purpose in our work has started to take hold, Carolyn now encourages her readers to find their own purpose where they are, rather than rushing headlong into a new job, a new company, a new career or even into entrepreneurship (which as we know, isn’t for everyone).

I first connected with Carolyn at the Slow School, when I was exploring my own purpose as an independent consultant (and sometime corporate escapee….). Slow School provides a community of like-minded souls with a “safe” space to test new ideas, a playground to kick around new concepts, and an environment to challenge our own assumptions. Unsurprisingly, a key part of The Purpose Project is a list of 50 questions designed to help readers dig deeper into their own purpose, modeled on the Japanese concept of ikigai”. There are also some tools and practices to bring purpose to life in our current work.

In my own case, I still think my purpose is a work in progress, and is never settled – much of my career has been driven by a need for new ideas and experiences, work that is intellectually stimulating, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning (while feeding an enduring curiosity and maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism). These factors, even more than formal qualifications or faddish management theories, have helped me to build resilience and navigate a rapidly changing work environment.

One point where I may disagree with Carolyn is this notion about finding purpose through staying in your current role or workplace – that it’s not necessary to leave. While I agree that it may be possible to reshape your current job to suit your personal needs and preferences, staying in an unrewarding job or remaining with an organisation that does not value you is like persevering with an unhealthy relationship.

In short, I’m quite pessimistic about the ability for large corporations and large institutions (as they are currently framed and constituted) to help us connect with our individual purpose, or even to provide the space to do so. And of course, rapid changes in the very nature of work, the way we work, the economic structures and business models that have traditionally underpinned employment and the value exchange of labour require us to take more control over where, how and with whom we choose to spend our working time.

Next week: Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX

 

 

It’s never too late to change….

Few things annoy me more than when someone in their late 20’s or early 30’s says: “I’m stuck in my job, and I can’t do anything about it.” My immediate reaction is to shout, “No you’re not, and yes you can!” But I stop myself, and ask instead, “What’s stopping you from making a change?” Usually, there is a mental blockage, and an inability to think outside or beyond the immediate situation. In turn, this is often linked to a distorted perspective about how they got to where they are, coupled with unreasonable (and therefore, unrealised) expectations.

Sculpture, Ueno Park, Tokyo (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

” A new perspective?” (Ueno Park, Tokyo – Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

Helping my clients to identify the barriers in their way (in particular any deeply entrenched obstacles), and to explore ways to dismantle or overcome them usually leads to alternatives: a new job opportunity, a potential career transition or a new business direction. It may not be an easy or comfortable process, but it’s not impossible. At its heart is the need for self-awareness, the willingness to embrace change, and the commitment to making it happen.

“See You At The Barricades”

Here are some of the initial objections I hear when people say they can’t make a career change or transition:

  • Financial security
  • Lack of time
  • No access to resources
  • No idea what to do next, where to look, how to plan
  • Enjoy the job, but not the organisation (or vice versa)
  • This is the only work they know, or studied/trained for
  • Non-transferable skills or inadequate training

My usual response is to get them to re-contextualize. It’s rather like using cognitive behaviour therapy, to reframe the situation. “How could you look at this differently?”, “What if you did this?”, “Who could help you overcome that?”, “What would be the ideal situation?”.

“Money’s Too Tight To Mention”

I understand that financial insecurity can be a major cause for concern. The certainty of a regular salary (even if you hate the job) can be preferable to taking a pay cut for a more rewarding role, or having to forego immediate financial return during a period of retraining or re-skilling. But if you are only doing a job because of the money, the likelihood is that you may never be entirely happy in your role, you may come to resent the work you do, and eventually you may lose sight of what is important to you. Plus, the knock-on effect on your personal well-being and that of your family can be significant. After all, no job has a lifetime warranty or even a 2-year guarantee, so the paycheck will probably run out anyway.

“Time Is On My Side”

Even if your financial circumstances or apparent lack of time mean that you can’t leave your current job or explore other options without securing a comparable income in another role, there are several ways to prepare for a career transition:

  • Re-train in your own-time – use on-line courses, evening classes and weekend workshops to access new skills and education
  • Ask your current organisation about options for study leave or flexible work hours
  • Suggest a personal development plan that draws on existing resources – e.g., shadow another colleague, or do a rotation or secondment to another team or department
  • Workers in some industries or older employees may be able to access public funding to support retraining and re-skilling
  • Use your annual leave to intern or volunteer at an organisation where you might like to work in the future

“Possibly Maybe”

There are many new opportunities for personal development through short courses, skill sharing or peer-to-peer platforms, and alternative learning paths to re-connect with your purpose. It might even be possible to reconfigure or restructure your current role to better suit your needs. Besides, the job you were originally hired for (or the industry and/or the career you trained for) has probably changed significantly; if you are not doing some regular re-engineering, you risk being confined to outdated thinking or processes, or worse, becoming obsolete.

“This Is Your Big Opportunity”

In fact, you have an obligation to yourself to invest in your own career, by re-training, updating your skills, or embarking on new challenges. Increasingly, organisations expect employees to take personal responsibility for self-managing their career, their professional development and to maintain the technical currency of their skills. Even better if you can demonstrate that learning a new skill can support innovation, generate efficiency gains, or deliver customer benefits. There are increasing examples where collaboration, co-creation and cross-pollination of ideas, skills and people between organisations and their suppliers/vendors/clients/distributors can have mutual outcomes, and employers are looking for people who can identify these opportunities.

“This Is The Way”

From personal experience, curiosity, pro-active networking, asking questions and generally taking an interest in what is going on in and around the organisation and wider world can reap huge rewards. In my own case, having a sense of enquiry prompted a transfer from London to Hong Kong to open a new Asian office for the company I worked for. Earlier in my career, I took evening classes so I could transition from a role in the public sector to a new career in publishing. And I continue to find new learning opportunities through meetups, hackathons and startup pitch nights, and attending workshops on innovation, collaboration, design thinking and technology.

I’ve written previously about the changing economic relationship of employment, because it’s incumbent on all of us to learn resilience and adaptability. We have a duty to equip ourselves in order to cope with and prepare for the continuous change and volatility we are all experiencing in the nature of the work we do.

Finally, for anyone who says they are “too old to change”, consider this: I recently met a man in his 60s, who had retired from a lifelong career in teaching, quickly got bored, and so he went back to college and is now a licensed horse trainer. He gets up earlier than he used to as a teacher, but he has connected with a passion and made it his career choice.

Declaration of Interest: I am a member of the Slow School of Business Advisory Council, which delivers Slow Coaching and Talk on Purpose

Next week: ANZ’s new CEO on #FinTech, CX and #digital disruption