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How to become a strategist

Very often, I get questions about how to become a strategist.

It seems like many people want to work with strategy, but they don’t know how to get that kind of job.

First of all: I would say that it’s not very common to work in a strategist role as your first job out of school. So, you’ll need some work experience. However, you can, of course, be strategic (I kid you not) when you get that experience.

Disclaimer:

To be clear, these are my personal opinions. Someone else might give you completely different advice when you ask how to become a strategist, or what skills a good strategist needs.

Some people claim the ability to think strategically is something you either have, or you don’t. Though luck, they’d say.

I’m not going to say that. I’m choosing to believe that strategy is something you can learn, or at least become better at with practice.

What is strategy?

Even though we have studied strategy and strategic thinking for years, there is no clear answer about what “strategy” is.

However, since I’m the one writing this article, I’m going to give my point of view.

This is what I think about strategy:

  • Strategy is about direction and scope, for an entity who can behave in different ways. It can be an organisation, person, country, political party or something else who have various alternatives.
  • When you work strategically it’s more often long-term and on macro-level, than short-term and micro-level.
  • Strategy is about calculating potential outcomes – sometimes without the information you need
  • Strategy is defining, and optimising, for success
  • It is about making intentional and well-founded choices between different alternatives

You might ask:

“Why can I not become a strategist as my first job out of school?”

Well, as you could read above, strategy is about choosing between alternatives. Also, how should you know what road to take if you haven’t seen the world?

What skills do you need to become a strategist?

Let’s take a simple example:

Football.

To be strategic as a football coach, you will need to know all potential moves you can make at every single point in the game. You also need to know all the steps your opponent can potentially make.

However, knowing the potential moves at one point in time is not enough.

You also need to know the potential outcomes from those moves in the next 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 rounds of the game. Moreover, at every single step, your choice can be successful or not. So you’ll always need a plan for both those outcomes.

Also, you want the probability of success to be as high as possible, and the risk of loss to be low. However, if your pay off is high, it might be worth taking a larger risk.

Then you take all that information, and after weighing your options, you choose the move that will most likely create a successful outcome.

So, how can that translate to another context?

 So:

If you want to become a business strategist, you first of all need to know as many different ways to run a business as possible. How they might be organised, the different ways to calculate revenue, how different business models work and why it matters, … , and thousands of other questions with even more answers.

Because, the thing is: You also need to know the possible results from all the different ways.


Alternatively, if you want to become a political strategist, you must make sure to see a lot of different ways you can behave in politics. Additionally, you need to understand what outcomes the different behaviours will most likely create.

The same goes for marketing strategists. You must know an awful lot about different ways to do marketing. Use that knowledge to take he relevant path to reach a goal.

The skills you need to learn to become a strategist

Apart from knowing a lot about the different ways to behave in your field. There are several skills everyone who’s looking to think strategically need:

  1. The ability to think ahead
  2. A good sense for risk and reward – not being too much of a risk taker, nor too cautious
  3. How to extrapolate from very little information
  4. Using data from one situation and apply it to something completely different, even when the circumstances might look very different at first sight
  5. Finding and using patterns in your surroundings
  6. Learning from your mistakes, and successes. To become better att placing your bets over time.

What to do before you try to become a strategist (if you're strategic...)

If you need the skills listed above. And, if you on top of that need as much domain knowledge as possible. What should you do?

Here are some things I recommend you to do if you want to become a strategist:

  • Put yourself in positions where you get to see as many different ways of doing things as possible, for example: at a consulting agency or advertising agency.
  • Have similar roles but in very different contexts. For instance, if you start as a project manager in tech, your next job could be project management in the fashion industry, or health care or just about anything but tech.
  • Work in teams where you get to work close to someone who is strategic and where you gain insight into the thought process of this person. Do the dirty work, and ask questions. So, make sure to work as part of a team, and make sure always to be the one on the team who knows the least.
  • Always have a job where you get continuous feedback. Even if you’re currently only answering the phone, make sure you get feedback regularly and make sure to implement it to become better. That is how it all starts for anyone with a strategic role.

Other essential skills for anyone looking to become a strategist:

Well, yes.

Apart from the skills listed above, as a strategist, you will need to know how to document your thought process. No strategy will ever be accepted if others do not understand it.

This means:

  • Write reports
  • Create slideshows
  • Present in front of others as often as possible
 

Another thing:

Make sure to get feedback when you do this.

The last thing I will recommend to you:

Do as much research you can.

You need to be on a constant hunt to find the best. Because what you think is never as smart as the thoughts others have thought before you.

I can guarantee that you will find a better way of thinking, doing, being, living, etc., as long as you look for those ways.

You are never the smartest person in the room, and you are definitely not the most intelligent person on the internet.

This insight should make you: always research everything.

Being a great strategist is about accepting that you don’t know best. Make sure to take every single opportunity to practice getting better.

I spend most of my days googling, and so should you.

Good luck!

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