How to do strategy for your own career

You’ll only really understand strategy when you understand this:

  • It’s a universal pattern

It’s not a piece of technical knowledge, it’s not something invented, it’s not super domain specific.  It’s basically about understanding how things (e.g. businesses) fit into wider systems (e.g. markets) in a healthy and harmonious way that benefits all parties.

(Granted there are certain “parasitical” forms of strategy that don’t promote this kind of universal flourishing, but that’s a topic for another day)

Now I could write a long and boring piece about these patterns, and about how they can be traced from atoms to animals to airlines and back again – but that would be too theoretical.  Instead lets approach it much more practically with this idea:

Strategy for business and strategy for careers are the same things.

Career strategy is simply a microcosm of business strategy, where instead of having an organisation trying to deliver value to a market, you have an individual trying to deliver value to an employer.

As a result, in both cases leverage (and rewards) naturally accrue to those who find a way of offering unique value to the system they’re a part of.  All textbook stuff I’ve written about a million times, just applied to a different domain.

Now, because these things are so similar, the strategic errors people make in both fields are similar too.

Let’s think about it.

What is the most common error in business strategy?  I would suggest it is expending your efforts on becoming “better” than your competitors, because this direct battle leads to commodification over time.  You all try to become the best “X”, and succeed only in becoming generic versions of that thing.  You’d be far better off focusing on becoming different – “the only X that does Y” – and carving out a bit of space that you can own.

I’ve written about this so much I won’t expand on it anymore here, I think you all know what I’m talking about.

So what would be this error’s equivalent in a career?

It’s this:

  • Sticking to the job description

A job description, when you think about it, is the “generic template” for what a given employee should be doing in the system.  It will be somewhat tailored to the specific organisation, but generally it represents the “table stakes” for the role.  The error then is when people think:

“If I do what’s written in this job description really really well, then I’ll be of huge value to the company and they’ll reward me”.

But this isn’t how it works – at least not in most organisations.

Nailing the job description puts you in the position of a “commodity brand”; one which has no leverage because there are too many other “brands” who could come in and do the same thing you do.  The organisation has no incentive to treat you different, because you aren’t different.  This of course leads to much understandable bitterness on behalf of diligent employees the world over:

“I did everything they bloody wanted, and still they won’t give me the rewards I deserve!”.

I dare say you might recognise this.

The solution to the problem then is exactly the same as it is with brands: to find a way of stepping beyond the “generics of the category” to deliver your own, personal, unique value.  Or, to put it more bluntly:

  • Strategy is the bit where you go beyond the job description.

This is how you play the game.  This is how you get leverage.

Let me give you an example from my own life.  Back when I was an account exec in a marketing agency, I did a little side project where I set up their research and measurement function.  I wasn’t an expert in this field, but in that industry at the time such things were very limited, so it didn’t take much to create something that had pretty serious value.

This then gave me the leverage to create the “strategy department” (even though I knew nothing about that either), and by and by to be allowed to create Basic Arts on the side, with my employer’s blessing.

Now here’s the kicker: I was a pretty crap account exec.  I didn’t nail the job description.  But I managed to progress faster than people who did, precisely because of the unique way I approached it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can abandon the core job altogether.  You need to be at least functional at it – just like any brand in its category.  But you must also recognise that this isn’t where strategic advantage is to be found.

You must bring your own thing to the table.

  • Do 90% of the job totally generically, tick the boxes
  • And then do 10% of it bloody weird

Assuming the weirdness has real value, your employer will tolerate your sloppiness around the edges – guaranteed.

So, do you see how it all fits together?  How the patterns repeat at higher and lower levels?  How you can develop a sensitivity for these patterns which enables you to be strategic intuitively, in all sorts of domains?

That is what makes this whole thing so beautiful, in my opinion.

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