Nine things to do to grow as a strategist

One theme, nine things

There are few topics that are as relevant for ambitious strategists as personal growth. It’s a topic that never gets old. Unsurprisingly, in a discipline that is only vaguely defined, there are hardly widely available frameworks for personal growth. Every agency handles growth different – and, to make it more complicated, every no single strategists is alike. Helping young strategists find their own way of learning and growing is one of the most exciting (and challenging) parts of the job.

Drawing from my own experience and the generous input of the kind planners of Twitter, I want to share nine things and a meta-theme that seemed to be helpful for me and/or others to grow as a strategist.

Before getting into that, though, a quick note on the kind of growth I’m talking about. Personal growth doesn’t equal promotions. I think the metaphor of careers as ladders is unhelpful as it doesn’t allow people tap their full breadth of potential. If you need a metaphor, I’d rather think of careers as trees.

The meta-theme: Exposure

Get yourself and your beautiful brain out there. The single most important way of growing as a strategist is to continuously expose your thinking and your ideas to the world. I’d argue the moment you stop doing that you will stop growing. The beauty of it is that most of it is totally in your hands. For some of it, though, you’ll need a good manager.

Share your thinking

If you don’t share you won’t learn. So get mentally prepared for putting your unfinished, half-baked, very vulnerable ideas and thoughts out into the wider world – to get feedback. From “getting my work judged by people” to “speak in public”, the strategists of Twitter mention different ways of starting that beneficial feedback loop that will ultimately help you grow your strategy.

I forced myself early in my career to write a blog that I back then called ‘medium rare’ (to make it very clear that most of what I published was half baked at best) just to get stuff out there. On the few occasions people reacted to my writing it immediately made my thinking clearer.

Analyse other people’s work and ideas

I find it curious to interview strategists who can’t reference a piece of advertising, communication, or a brand that they recently stumbled upon that they found remarkable. It’s obviously great that brands are not the only thing that they are interested in (see last point) but brands and knowing about the best of them are a part of their job. A thought that came up in a discussion with Baiba Matisone was how Junior Strategists without their own portfolio could benefit from analysing work of/and brands they liked to train their analytical muscle, develop their own point of view, and have examples ready for interviews and conversations.

Talk about strategy

Something I wish I’d done more often is to proactively seek out conversations with strategists I admire. On the few occasions I did, it was always valuable input that helped me refine my own approach to strategy.

If you’re in a different city for work or holiday, reach out to planners who live or work there. Or make use of great initiatives like Gorden Euchler’s 30-Minute Planning University where he connects mentors and mentees via his Linkedin page. Every single conversation will make you a better strategist.

Think beyond strategy

A strategy is only as valuable as the action it sparks – and that action is often done and/or guided by other disciplines (or departments.) Knowing at least a little bit about the adjacent disciplines that make up the whole is vital to become a better strategists (and to make your strategies more impactful.)

Pitch, pitch, hurray!

This is one I am a little bit conflicted about, but Planning Twitter was adamant about the value a strategist can get out of a pitch. Claire and Julian Cole (Tweet has since been deleted) called them the perfect ‘pressure cooker’ for young talent as they are often one of the few opportunities to work directly with the most senior agency stakeholders on a very compressed timeline that has to lead to an outcome.

(The reason why I am conflicted about this is that the pitch process can also be very frustrating for more junior talent as it’s not unheard of that decisions are made at the eleventh hour by agency leadership that throw out all (their) previous thinking and reasoning. But even this could serve as a learning opportunity.)

Cross category work

While pitches force you to build a point of view under pressure, getting a deeper understanding of different categories over time helps strenghtening the core while pushing the edges of your strategy game. Working across as many different businesses allows you see the different and not so different marketing challenges across categories – and how your knowledge can be transferred to help solve those. This is how a strategists gut feeling is built and strengthened.

From theory to practise

This one is potentially the hardest one, particularly for a young strategist. My economics teacher in secondary school used to say that paper was patient: theory is very often just that, theory. As strategies should always lead to action, it’s easy to see how real life experience in a business will make you a better strategist.

Leave your comfort zone

If things get too easy, you stop growing. If you don’t get challenged to push beyond your comfort zone regularly, chances are you are not learning anything new. I left a perfectly comfortable position with decent “career” opportunities for a job that stripped me off my precious title. The new perspective, the new challenge, and a steeper learning curve quickly made up for that “loss.”

Beware the bubble

If you don’t want to leave your current job to get “real world” experience, try at least to keep your mental box open for serendipitous outside input. Force yourself to do stuff you otherwise wouldn’t do. Read things that are not related to your day job. (Even though you could argue that it’s hard to find something that is not somehow related to a strategists job.) This is partly informed by a hypothesis of mine that strategists (in advertising) start to stop adding value the moment they get hired by an agency. (That, of course, is an overt dramatisation that depends on how you define value – as arguable, the value that strategists bring to advertising agencies changes over time. Additionally, it’s also only true for the average planner, as good planners manage to keep bringing the outside in.) So read broadly, surround yourself with interesting people.

A personal take

The above list is a personal take on the topic of personal growth. It’s a reflection of my ten plus years as a strategist and the generous input of the kind planners of Twitter. It is not complete and what worked for me or others might not work for you. But exposing your thinking to outside perspective, to pressure and pace, to diverse and holistic projects and being open to the feedback you will receive in return is one great way of growing as a strategist. That doesn’t mean you have to take that every feedback at face value – but the willingness to listen and to consider input precedes the ability to grow. So put yourself out there. And let me know what you’d include on that list in the comments below.

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