Power of Strategy (or strategic thinking) in career management

Strategy is a widely studied topic in business and military but much less used in the context of thinking about your personal career path. We often think about careers in terms of planning or management but much less in terms of strategy. Why not to use the body of knowledge that exists out there about strategy and strategic thinking and to apply it to careers?

Strategy starts and ends with the ability to think strategically. Strategic thinking skill is already highly in demand and is absolutely essential for managers and leaders at all levels. But, ability to think strategically will become even more important as the world, society and economy becomes more complex, volatile and uncertain. Think about the VUCA world — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Ability to think strategically about your career will also become more and more important, as the job market and the world of work is becoming as well more complex, non-linear and volatile. In fact, I would count strategic thinking skill as one of the key skills of the future that will make you future-proof and will help you to navigate the job market of the future.

Ok, we are convinced. But what is strategic thinking and how to apply it to thinking about careers?

In its simplest form, strategic thinking is an ability to plan for the future. It’s the capacity to prepare strategies and ideas that will help to cope with changing environments and consider the various challenges that lie ahead. Strategic thinking in simple terms consists of three phases that identify and clarify: 1) where we are now;2) where we want to be; and 3) how we will get there.

Henry Mintzberg, the strategy guru, wrote that strategic thinking is more about synthesis (i.e., “connecting the dots”). It is about capturing what we learn from all sources (both the soft insights from your personal experiences and the experiences of others and the hard data from market research and the like) and then synthesizing that learning into a vision of the direction that we should pursue.

So, in other words, to learn and apply strategic thinking, we must:

· Future: Learn to think about the future (almost like futurologists) and learn to see the big picture. However, we are not speaking about just thinking about the future. We are actually talking about a concept of ‘’Thinking in time’’. It means being able to hold past, present and future in mind at the same time. Strategy is not driven by future intent alone. It is the gap between today’s reality and intent for the future that is critical.

· Structure: we also must learn to think about the future in a systematic and structured way, keeping in mind your objectives and interests (i.e. in this case — with focus on the job market and your career). Strategic thinking provides lots of framework and tools to help you structure your thinking and we will look at them later.

· Learning and gathering insights: strategic thinking is also about constant learning from all sources — personal insights, experiences, experiences of others and more hard data like formal studying and following news and reading books. One of the interesting paradoxes of strategy is that in order to elevate one’s thinking to see “the big picture” and the future, one must first dive below the surface to uncover insight that become like a piece of a puzzle that builds the big picture. Some people sometimes compare it to an iceberg — everything that you put into creating a strategy is under the surface and not visible to others. We also should keep in mind that the strategic thinkers have the ability to use the left (logical) and right (creative) sides of their brain. It means that when learning and collecting insights, we should look for logical and non-logical (for example, emotional) insights.

· Limited resources: To be able to think strategically, we need to keep in mind that the resources are limited and in order to achieve better results, we need to be constantly optimizing their use. And the resources come in all forms and shapes. The most obvious resource is money. Money is important, but even more important resources are your energy and your time.

Over time the strategy professionals developed a wide array of tools and frameworks that can be used as props to help you think about the future in a more strategic and structured way. None of these tools will give you the definite answer on what to do or where to go. But they are very useful to help you broaden and structure your thinking. They help to look at an issue from various perspectives. They are very useful since they will give you more insights and that at the end is what we are after in building a strategy for the future. Below are just some of the strategic thinking tools:

· Mission or purpose: it all starts of course with your mission or a purpose. It is not easy to think about it in relation to your own life or career. But it is a helpful tool that can help you to clarify few things. For me, the simplest way to think about your mission or a purpose is to ask the famous ‘’why’’ question. Not what would you like to achieve but why would you want it? Is it simply because you want more money or power or is it because you want to make a difference, contribute to something bigger than yourself? Or is it something that simply excites you and you feel you are passionate about? Another way to think about it is to think in terms of take and give. What do I want to take — money, power, fame, recognition or what do I want to give — improve something, help somebody, contribute to something and, in other words, make the world a better place? In general, the ‘’give’’ parts of your mission and purpose are much more sustainable, energizing and inspirational over time.

· Values: people are often uncertain about how to integrate this concept into thinking about their careers. But becoming aware of your values is essential in helping you to define your direction of travel. If you choose a direction of travel that goes against your values, simply because you think that this will bring you more return, be sure that this will not work out well over time.

· Vision is your direction of travel and the answer to the question of where and who I what to be. It is the result and the synthesis of all that learning and insights that you collected in terms of thinking about yourself, the world around you and the future opportunities and risks. It incorporates and builds upon your mission and your values.

· Gap analysis: the gap analysis is simply answering to these 3 questions — where I am now, where I want to be and what is the gap. Once you define the gap, it become much easier to proceed in defining the goals and the action plan.

· SWOT: The most common is the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). A SWOT analysis is a helpful way to begin (or continue) thinking about what’s working and what’s not working as well as what potentially exciting or concerning things are happening that we need to consider as we plan for the future. When applying the SWOT analysis to your personal situation, you need to know your personal strength and weaknesses but also you need to think about strengths and weaknesses of the situation in which you are in. Depending on your vision and direction of travel, they might include your geographical location (big city versus small), commute time, family responsibilities and demands on your time, as well as many other things.

There are just some of the most known and widely used strategic thinking tools. Using them will help you to apply strategic thinking to your career.

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