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 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, and 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 keen strategist with new ideas and a passion for seeing change happen within the business.
- Individuals get to solve complex problems for the CEO in an environment where they have time to learn more about, and bonus, they work fewer hours and enjoy a more balanced lifestyle.
An Internal Strategy / Chief of Staff position is not a career role.
It’s a transition for both organisation and the individual, whom each has 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 an excellent breeding ground for forward-thinking, future-proof organisational leaders, but it can be challenging. Based on my experience working within the field for the past twenty years, I hope to share insights that will assist individuals in navigating the hurdles they will inevitably face.
Early in their career, Strategy Leads / COS need more experience to jump into another internal C-suite position quickly. And in most companies, the career path for a COS is unclear about a shift into more traditional C-suite roles.
Organisations still tend to focus on specific “vertical” skill sets, and hiring efforts tend to focus on sourcing individuals with direct experience in the business area rather than looking at ex-strategists who have transferable skills and could shift horizontally.
Navigating the internal politics of an organisation can be challenging. You’re critical to one person (the CE), and with their sponsorship for a potential move, you’re likely to go somewhere. If you’re doing a great job, they’re likely to want to keep you close to them. This has benefits – most notably, the chance to work close to the highest decision-maker and the visibility, rather than narrow business area 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.
Boredom is a real risk. How many times can you take a board through its strategy review? The first time will be fantastic, but you’re likely to be checked out by the third iteration. Despite the faster pace of business, most large organisations are still working on 5-year cycles from strategy to implementation. So once you’ve done your part in year 1, you could find yourself without any meaningful (or challenging) work during the bedding-in phase.
Change fatigue is accurate, and organisations cannot absorb change constantly. The excitement of management consulting cannot be replicated internally, as the opportunity to run multiple projects simultaneously is 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 following “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 becoming 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 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. For example, 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.
Contact me if you’re a CEO looking to hire a Strategist or COS: firstname.lastname@example.org.