The pace of change and the competitive nature of business today demands that organisations focus on developing and implementing strategic imperatives, adapting in real-time to operational and environmental realities, in order to succeed. And this has led to the creation of dedicated roles like Chief of Staff (COS) or Head of Strategy.

Corporates looking to hire a COS or Head of Strategy tend to look for strong individuals from a management consulting background. This makes sense: management consultants are bright, analytical, good problem solvers and their exposure to various client environments means they come with proven track records and fresh ideas.

Many management consultants, near “burnout” from the excessive pace of a management consulting firm role typified by long hours, tight deadlines, high stress and extensive travel, see an internal strategy job as a great way to land in an organisation, with hopes of growing into a C-suite role.

It’s a marriage made in heaven, right?

  • Organisation gets a keen strategist with new ideas and a passion to see change happen within the business.
  • Individual gets to solve complex problems for the CEO in an environment which they have time to learn more about, and bonus, they work fewer hours and enjoy a more balanced lifestyle.

Or maybe not?

An Internal Strategy / Chief of Staff position is not a career role.

It’s a transition, for both organisation and individual, who each have relatively short-term goals at the outset of the relationship.  There are exceptions of course, with some internal strategy folk discovering a growth path within the organisation that culminates in P&L responsibilities, however these tend to be few and far between.

In this blog post I aim to unravel some of the challenges these individuals face within their new roles, almost from day one. There can be no doubt that internal strategy is a great breeding ground for forward-thinking future-proof organisational leaders, but it’s not always plain sailing. Based on my experience working within the field for the past twenty years, I hope to share insights that will assist individuals to navigate the hurdles they will inevitably face.

Hurdle 1:

Early in their career, Strategy Leads / COS tend to lack the experience necessary to make a quick jump into another internal C-suite position. And in most companies, the career path for a COS is unclear with regards to a shift into more traditional C-suite roles.

Hurdle 2:

Organisations still tend to focus on specific “vertical” skills sets and hiring efforts tend to focus on sourcing individuals who have direct experience in the business area, rather than looking at ex-strategists who have transferable skills and could shift horizontally.

Hurdle 3:

Navigating the internal politics of an organisation can be challenging. You’re critical to one person (the CE) and without their sponsorship for a potential move, you’re likely to go nowhere. If you’re doing a great job, they’re likely to want to keep you close to them, and this has benefits – most notably the chance to work close to the highest decision-maker and the visibility, rather than business area narrow focus, that comes from a strategy role. If you’re keen to explore other opportunities, you’ll need the CE’s backing and their sign-off and whilst it might seem counter-intuitive for a CE to block a rising star, I’ve heard many such stories.

Hurdle 4:

Boredom is a real risk. How many times can you take a board through its strategy review? The first time will be awesome, but by the third iteration you’re likely to be checked out. Despite the faster pace of business, most large organisations are still working on 5-year cycles from strategy to implementation and once you’ve done your part in year 1, you could find yourself without any meaningful (or challenging) work to do during the bedding-in phase.

Hurdle 5:

Change fatigue is real, and organisations simply cannot absorb change constantly. The excitement of management consulting cannot be replicated internally as the opportunity to run with multiple projects simultaneously are limited due to budget and resource constraints.

It’s not all doom and gloom and a dead-end isn’t inevitable if you take charge of your career from the outset. Follow these top tips to improve your chances of career longevity and success.

Communicate openly. Have regular career chats with your CE / Executive, raising areas of concern and seeking opportunities for development, exposure and growth.

Re-think your growth plan. Move away from focusing on the next “title” and instead find areas you can gain greater business exposure and leadership opportunities.

Build your network. Gather connections throughout the organisation and ensure that you deliver excellent projects, no matter how small, to get noticed and grow value in the eyes of these connections.

Stay grounded. Avoid the temptation to become addicted to the limelight that an internal strategy role affords you within an organisation.

Commit to continuous improvement. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and work hard to build knowledge, skills and capacity, particularly in areas where you currently lack.

Remain open. Balance your desire to “own” a functional area without losing the visibility of C-level stakeholders within your organisation. Avoid attaching your career to one key executive at a time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and learn about your experiences. How did you manage to transition successfully? Or are you currently battling to pivot out of an internal strategy role? Please share your story with us.

If you’re a CEO looking to hire a Strategist or COS contact me.