Thinking that strategists are the right-hand men (and, rarely, women) to captains of industry, you might want to head for the strategy department of a multinational – BP, say, or Roche. And you’d find others there who thought the same: alumni of McKinsey, Bain and BCG. But here’s the secret: they’re clamouring to get out.
How can this be? The truth is that a strategy department is a staff function. It has no profit and loss responsibility, and, despite its massive PowerPoint output, it has no decision-making power, either, so no one – especially not the managers it exists to serve – takes it seriously. Decisions are taken by line managers, and strategic decisions are taken a long way up the line. A strategy department may provide high-quality advice, but there’s the frustration of waiting months to see it grind into implementation, if implementation ever happens. (The recommendations made by a consulting firm aren’t always implemented, either, but this is less frustrating for the individual consultant because he or she has moved on before the client shelves the slides.)
If the strategists’ advice is implemented, one of two things can happen. It can be handed over to the change management team, or the strategy department itself can be tasked with implementation. Moving across the strategy spectrum towards implementation has been the mantra of the big consulting groups for the past half-decade, but consultants hate implementation, seeing it as boring and trivial. And it can be trivial: I once watched a consultant colleague write an implementation workplan that contained such highlights as “24 April: Attach nameplates to doors”. In a strategy department, working to the ponderous timelines of industry, you’ll grind your teeth out before the 24th of April rolls around.
Career-wise, once you’re in a strategy department, there’s nowhere to go. You can head sideways into change management – a horror all its own, of which more later. But, if you want to change into a line function, you have to beg your way in. It’s hard to be an egghead, but it’s harder still to have your egg poached by marketing or sales.
So where does the aspiring strategist go? That’s a topic all its own. But only the foolhardy or the brave – or the terminally exhausted – should offer themselves as grist for the corporate strategy mill