Expert Panel: How Is The Strategist Role Changing?

Strategy is becoming increasingly important


Strategists have had to adapt fast in recent years, with new technologies, an increasingly complex business climate, and global events bringing constantly evolving challenges that have significantly changed the nature of their role and how they are viewed within their organizations. We asked nine strategy leaders from some of the world’s largest and most innovative companies how they felt their role had changed in recent years.

Clive Tillotson, Director of Business Operations & Strategy at Fujitsu

If I got the role descriptions of ten specimen strategists, I’d see ten different interpretations of the role! So my starting point would be that amid immense variety in the role, a strategy is swinging back to being something that needs generalistic skills. The main reason for this is the massive disruption caused by things like Digital and Brexit. Digital technology is so disruptive to business models that the skills to digest and analyse its reach are far beyond its technical fundamentals. Brexit is a rat’s nest of potential cause-and-effect that again, has the capacity to touch everything.

Discrete expertise in, for example, technology strategy or finance strategy has to be coupled with an awareness of more general trends like digitisation, Brexit, or demographics, otherwise, any strategy or planning will be a miss. However, generalists need to bring their own discrete skills to the party. They need to be adroit storytellers and communicators otherwise, they will be forgotten. Also, they need to be strong planners because otherwise, the strategy will lack rigour. Finally, I think that they need to have contrasting experience from outside their current industry because it’s increasingly important to leverage that, in order to open up potential sources of innovation and disruption.

Abhinav Bhatnagar, Director, Global Cloud Operations & Strategy, Google

A strategist now needs to constantly toggle between the ever increasing amount of data to really glean the right insights while also ensuring that he or she continues to build on primary research, qualitative storytelling, and project management abilities. This has required successful strategist to learn new skills, like big data analytics and new tools that in the past might have been optional.

Mina Seetharaman, Global Director of Content Strategy & Content Solutions at The Economist Group

Increasingly, strategists cannot be the academics who live in the ivory tower of business. While business progressives talk a lot about failing early and often, business leaders still need to know that their strategies are executable. The best strategists understand execution and think about this when planning.

Mark Sheppard, Chief Commercial Officer at GE

The modern world is moving at an increasingly faster rate, change is becoming more constant, and new-age strategists need to develop mechanisms to respond to continual technological advancements that can make existing products and systems obsolete in a heartbeat.

Five years ago, adapting to the consumer demands of social media was the focus of almost every corporation and many startups. Now the industrial internet is upon us, we are using assets to predict efficiencies and prevent failures like never before. Each year the number of sensor-optimized machines increases and the implication of these developments can be hard to predict or plan for.

The role of a strategist is a part planner, a part observer, a part futurist, and much more a master of change management than ever before.

Simon Hay, Head Of Strategy at Kiwibank

A couple of things stand out for me in this regard. In an increasingly complex and uncertain operating environment, I think that there is increased demand for strategy, and in turn the role of a strategist has become much more demanding in itself, both in terms of making sense of the environment beyond the generalities of disruption (and the speed with which it is occurring), and also being able to lead the clear articulation and required alignment of their organization’s longer-term goals with what is happening in the present. Rather than the detailed structured approaches to strategic planning that we saw previously (that’s not to say that strategic planning as an exercise is not important as it is), I think we are seeing a strategist more as a storyteller rather than as a program manager in this more fluid environment.

Maura Sullivan, Chief Strategy & Innovation at US Navy

We live in a world characterized by rapid change and constantly shifting business models. Strategy can no longer be about optimizing for incremental gains in productivity or operational decisions about resourcing. Today’s strategists must be conscientious designers with an in-depth understanding of risk. Strategists need to be able to connect concepts that seem unrelated at face value in order to predict disruption. They must have both the imagination and the analytic frameworks to see cause-and-effect relationships and extrapolate and communicate the impact of present trends on a complex, uncertain future.

Sayeed Sanullah, First Vice President (Strategy & Analytics) at Wells Fargo

The core of a strategist role remains the same – create/add value by leveraging strategic insights and planning. However, the role today also requires a different approach to be effective. A strategist should not just excel at strategic thinking at the 30,000 feet level, but also be comfortable with rolling up sleeves and getting hands dirty with tactical and day-to-day efforts. As the business value chain becomes more complex, the rate of change of the internal and external environments increases, and the differentiation powers shifts towards customer interaction and partner network, a strategist has to lessen the focus on predictions and shift into rapid prototyping and experimentation, so that he/she learns quickly about what actually works. Instead of the old approach of making a plan and sticking to it, (which led to centralized strategic planning around fixed time horizons) strategists should believe in setting a direction, testing it, and treating the whole organization as a team that is experimenting its way to success.

Jen Baxter, Head of Strategy and Planning at Teach First

I think that this can be quite dependent on the organization. McKinsey wrote an interesting report in 2014, ‘Rethinking the role of the stractegist’ which highlights some key changes particularly around the increasing scope of the strategist’s role. In my previous role, strategy, business development and research (analytics) were part of one team, and all members of the team had to work across, and be skilled in these areas. In my current organization, responsibility for strategy, planning, reporting and risk all sits with the strategy team. My view is that the role of the strategist is multifaeted, and many organizations expect strategists to be competent in more than pure strategy.

Mark Blankenship, EVP at Jack in the Box

Today’s strategist is more than an analytical tool of the organization. They must understand the complexities/realities of their organization and must build bridges across the functional boundaries to garner support for strategy and strategic initiatives. Second, they must see strategy as more than strategic planning, and more than an event. Marketplace and organizational dynamics imply that strategy must also become dynamic and agile.

BONUS CONTENT: Hugh Eaton, Senior Director of Strategy at Cisco Systems discusses the strategic challenges that face a large organization in the modern world at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit London 2017


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