Life. Then Strategy

How to get into strategy

So, you want to get a strategy job?

I recently read a theory that really struck a chord with me and helped me make sense of my journey over the past few years. Forgive me for not citing the source or being able to recollect the percentage accurately but the writer claimed that 80% of the jobs that my children’s generation will be doing haven’t been invented yet.

Think about that. Think about what you do now. Think about all those times you’ve had a hunch – even a strong opinion – about what you do day to day, how others may not have completely understood what you’re talking about, how you’ve struggled to work out how you fit into the system.

But what if the system is broken? What if you are a square peg being pushed into a round hole? If 80% of the jobs that will be in existence in 15-20 years haven’t been invented… what if you are at the cusp of this change?

What if you started with a clean sheet of paper… how would you build a system around how you think – and not force-fit how you think into an old system incapable of change?

Square pegs need square holes

The reason I bring this up in a post about getting into strategy is that the above is really liberating. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what I do. I’ve been going through old exercise books and notes from years and years ago… and I’ve found that a lot of my thinking is more or less the same. Maybe I wasn’t capable of expressing it as well back then – but the principles were there.

I bring this up because if you’ve chosen to read this post then you may well be feeling a bit stuck right now. You may be feeling that you have a lot more to offer the place you work, or to the bigger picture – but you’re stuck in a role or system that doesn’t seem to want you to shine.

You’re not alone. Three things I’d suggest are to really put effort into understanding what you’re about and how you can make a difference, communicating that to the right people in a constructive way and then being a little patient as the round hole gets ‘squared out’. It won’t happen over night.

The problem with ‘strategy’

The word ‘strategy’ is really mis-used by many people. ‘Strategic’ is a catch-all word to make people think that what you’re about to say is really smart. The ‘strategic purpose’, the ‘strategic objective’, the ‘strategic creative’… or if you want to be fancy, the ‘creative strategy’… The word is hurting.

Most people aren’t clear on what it is; and many simply give it away to get into ‘making stuff’ because ‘the stuff’ is what they can charge for. ‘The stuff’ feels like real, tangible work. Like widgets.

Perhaps, like me, you sit in meetings and someone presents a 50-page PowerPoint about their strategy. It has some fancy diagrams, ten bullet points per slide, uses words that only the people in the room understand… and then, what happens? Not much. But everyone feels good because the amount of thinking seems visible, as if a strategy is worth the number of words it takes to explain it.

I believe that the guts of a strategy should be explainable in a matter of sentences. If you pictured me pointing to where we need to go, I’d rather tell you where we’re going than explain to you how my body manages to get my index finger into the pointing position.

But how do you charge for that? I may have thought about it and researched it for tens of hours, but if I simply say it in 3 sentences, if I draw it on a page… will someone feel OK paying a lot of money for it?

So, if you want to get into strategy, your thinking about what strategy is, how you present it, justify it and make it interesting are critical.

What is strategy?

In the communications context, strategy is about solving problems with lateral thinking. It’s about understanding the cause of a business or brand problem – not simply solving a symptom – and digging for insights about people that are relevant to what the company has to offer… and linking them in a unique way.

There are all sorts of planners and strategists in the communications world: media planners, brand planners, social media planners, digital planners, experiential creative strategists and so on. What they all have in common is a drive to find a deep understanding of people – why they behave how they behave, why they think what they think, and then working out how to affect this behaviour and perception.

That’s all good and well but it’s easy for people to get lost in this stuff, in psychology, in research decks, to focus too much on being right rather than being compelling.

In a world where being agile, responsive, planning for the long-term but acting now are all increasingly important, ‘how strategy is’ – doing rather than pontificating, for instance – is increasingly becoming as important as ‘what strategy is’.

How to get into strategy

It would be extremely simplistic of me to pretend there’s actually a formula for getting into strategy but that won’t stop me from sharing what I look for.

1. Curiosity

This is the first thing I look for. What do you read? Have you traveled much? Where? Why? What movies do you like? Do you go to museums? Art galleries? Are you a natural people watcher? Do you watch for patterns when others are lost in the moment? You can’t teach curiosity but it’s incredibly important in doing strategy.

2. Action

I’m also curious as to what actions your curiosity has led to. Do you make stuff – a blog, art, computers, cars? There’s no better way to learn about stuff than doing and tinkering. If you’re just curious, and only watch from the sidelines I’d be nervous that we’d talk only about theory. I want to know what you tried and failed at. There’s rich insight in those failures.

3. Insight

Do you have a point of view on what an insight is? Can you talk about how an insight you found led to great thinking – by you and by others? I really like the definition of an insight that Lauren Cassar ‘borrowed’ from somewhere else: an insight is an unspoken human truth. It’s more powerful than an observation. Can you share one with me?

4. Opinion

To a degree, strategy is an opinion. Yes, it should be formed from an understanding of a bunch of stuff but it’s still an opinion. There are few absolute truths in the world. So I’m always keen to hear people’s opinions about things – I’m not trying to work out whether I agree with the person but whether there is thought behind what they’re saying and whether they’re able to deliver it in a compelling way.

5. Passion

Energy. Bring it. Be yourself – not what you think someone wants you to be. Then get in where you fit in.

6. Ideas

You need to be able to talk about ideas – communications or otherwise. You need to be able to explain an idea in a sentence or two. It will show that you’re both curious and able to understand then distill something complicated into something simple.

Of course, there are a lot of ‘soft’ things that will determine whether you get the gig – culture, personality, timing… but, if you’re serious about making a move into strategy, try focusing on the above and see what happens. Reveal yourself to your strategy team – or, if you don’t have one, to your CEO/MD.

What do you think?
Do you have a tip you can share about how to get into strategy?

Photo courtesy Muha.

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