Having a ‘career strategy’ means brutally examining your situation

We often mistake goals for strategy, but to be strategic about your career requires first diagnosing your situation, then giving yourself a competitive advantage.

The word ‘strategy’ has been used so much that its meaning has been lost. So, when devising one, first you need to ask yourself:

  • What is strategy?
  • What is a strategy?
  • What is in a strategy?
  • What is the strategy?
  • What goes into a strategy?
  • What makes a good strategy?

Yes, all these questions look the same, but with the addition of a definite or indefinite article and a different adjective, the word ‘strategy’ takes on a different meaning.

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An interesting exercise for you is to apply strategy to your own career – and, indeed, life. For this task, I recommend you take a look at Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt, a strategy professor at UCLA.

Reading it and applying it will deliver a double whammy: it will take a much-abused concept and make it real and relevant. Rumelt explains what goes into developing a strategy, what makes a strategy good and what makes a strategy bad. And it’s great framework to help us sit down and figure out a career strategy – particularly if we have been hit with the pandemic layoff.

In business and in careers, I observe that the biggest problem is incorrect diagnosis.

Why this book? Good Strategy/Bad Strategy pokes a gaping hole in many approaches, which include having passion, mistaking goals for strategy, and a failure to face the challenge of strategy. The book makes a clear distinction between strategies and strategy.

Strategy is about thinking through what the problem that you are facing is, and finding guiding policies and actions to address those challenges.  This might include strategies, but these should not be confused with thinking strategically.

Applying the Good Strategy/Bad Strategy framework to your career will deliver some very useful outcomes for you as you look for a new role:

  • You will be forced to really read and understand a great book.
  • The book talks about strategy – the heart of marketing – so you will really know strategy.
  • You will learn about strategy by implementing it in the real world with a real ‘product’ – you.
  • You will understand the necessity of ‘competitive advantage’ and the process of excellence.

What is strategy?

Rumelt describes strategy in simple terms: “designing a way to deal with a challenge”. A good strategy should identify the challenge to be overcome and design a way to overcome it. To do that, the core (or ‘kernel’) of a good strategy contains three elements:

  • A diagnosis
  • A guiding policy
  • A set of coherent actions

Another way to put this is:

  • Why are we doing this and what’s really going on? (diagnosis)
  • What is the plan? (guiding policy)
  • How will we accomplish this strategy? (coherent actions – tactics)

Diagnosis is what matters

What is the problem? What is the situation? Unless you diagnose this objectively and comprehensively, you cannot create a strategy.

A diagnosis defines and frames the challenge. It simplifies the complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation that are critical. A good diagnosis often uses an analogy, or an existing accepted framework to make it simple and understandable. The diagnosis suggests a potential series of actions. In formulating strategy, Rumelt says that strategists engage in an “internal quest for insight and an internal struggle against their own myopia”.

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In business and in careers, I observe that the biggest problem is incorrect diagnosis. Thinking through the ‘real’ problem requires proper scrutiny and a (sometimes brutal) examination of the underlying assumptions. The belief in ‘bias for action’ has polluted our thinking here: the tendency is to dive into solution mode and cause more havoc.

Applying the correct diagnosis is even more problematic when the product is ourselves. Just as the challenge of correct diagnosis in a business strategy context is difficult, being objective about ourselves is impossibly hard.

Let’s make its easier for ourselves: the application of diagnosis should start with knowing your strengths, your weaknesses, your unique abilities and the skills that make you a great product in the market.

But this is where the diagnosis on ourselves hits the buffers: as physicist Richard Feynman said “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool”. This is what I am referring to when I talk about starting with a beginner’s mindset: forget the past, forget about what you have worked on or believed to be true. It is much better to ‘clear the decks’: face reality the way it actually is versus what you want it to be.

Sure, the world should recognise my greatness and expertise. Sure, I am great person. Sure, they should have hired me instead of the person they did. So whatBetter to spend time to diagnose what the challenge with the product (you) is.

Guiding policy

Given the correct diagnosis of the situation, the next step is what guiding principles and policies could be applied? A guiding policy is an overall approach or method of dealing with the diagnosed problem. A guiding policy points you in a specific direction but does not list specific actions – it provides a ‘direction of travel’.

A good guiding policy also addresses the obstacles identified in the diagnosis phase and aims to create advantages by anticipating the actions and reactions of others. Guiding policies do not have to be some ‘grand strategy’ – they are simply a statement that channels your efforts – a general guide to face the situation that is based on some type of leverage or advantage.

For your career, this is all things you could do get a role, including specific assets and advantages you have, such as relationships, knowledge or deep expertise.

Coherent actions

An action plan is what many people think when we talk about strategy, but strategy is not just a random list of incoherent actions.

Coherent actions are designed to carry out the guiding policy. This is the cohesive, detailed plan to achieve your goal where you talk about the finer details – the tactics. The actions should co-ordinate and support each other.

For your career, you make a plan in a way that connects the dots. You identify the threads that run through your diagnosis and the guiding policies to create a specific plan that captures the best of your varied skills, training, experiences, and past choices.

‘Increase sales by 20%’ is not a strategy. ‘Get a new job in my dream industry’ is not a strategy. They are goals without context or a plan. These are strategies based on wishful thinking.

Bad strategy

A major distinction that Rumelt makes is what represents bad strategy. He believes it starts with confusing strategy with goals, or even more egregiously:

  • A list of high-sounding sentiments
  • A list of objectives
  • A laundry list of desirable outcomes
  • An inability to know that opinions are not insight
  • Words like ‘desire’, ‘drive’ or ‘determination’

Don’t fall into these traps.

Career competitive advantage

We all know in marketing about the role of a USP, the role of distinctiveness and the emphasis on having competitive advantage. With our careers, we also know that we are entering a competitive environment. Therefore, capturing more job opportunities requires differentiation, competitive advantage and distinctiveness from others.

Rumelt points out that businesses get wealthier by actively strengthening a competitive advantage or by increasing the demand for the scarce resources that support that competitive advantage. It might be hard for you to increase demand for your competitive advantage – which in this case are your skills – but improving them is totally within your capability.

‘Increase sales by 20%’ is not a strategy. ‘Get a new job in my dream industry’ is not a strategy. They are goals without context or a plan.

A very simplistic statement that is thrown around by non-marketers is ‘the best marketing is actually a fantastic product’. For you and your career, it might be true. To stand out, you must want to be excellent – and believe you can become an expert. An advantage is the result of differences – an ‘asymmetry’ between rivals. This asymmetry could be a skill or industry knowledge or an unbeatable combination.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy’s point about actively strengthening a competitive advantage applies to you: work on your strengths by taking what you are good – or even gifted at. Train it, work it, know it through repetition and practice to the point where you are excellent – and people in the real world can see you demonstrate and produce results with your competitive advantage.

An excellent point to note about strategy, which will save you a lot of heartache, is to disassociate yourself from outcomes. Rumelt points out in that ‘bad strategy’ occurs when “there is bad doctrine, when hard choices are avoided, and/or when leaders are unwilling or unable to define and explain the nature of the challenge”.  Bad strategy mistakes goals, ambition, vision, values and effort for strategy. Note, he does not write that bad outcomes are result of bad strategy, though that might happen – and, indeed, it is more likely.

There is no ‘correct’ strategy

We all have to make choices. Rather annoyingly, for our careers over the longer haul – and on the shorter-term job hunt – there’s no way to prove a chosen strategy is the ‘best’ or ‘right’ one. Just like playing poker well does not mean you will have a full house in your hand, having a good strategy does not mean you will start the job of your dreams tomorrow morning at 9am.

A strategy is a judgement of a situation and a choice made about the best path forward. It can’t be proven correct. There is no single right strategy in business or for careers.

To accommodate this, Rumelt recommends considering your strategy to be a hypothesis that can be tested and refined over time. With this hypothesis, you should listen for signs that the strategy is or is not working, and change tack accordingly. This point about the disconnect between having a good strategy and not getting the desired result is something that trips us all up.

Careers won’t pick up where they left off

Because there is no correct strategy, when making career choices, I always recommend that the best option to choose is the option that gives you more options – ideally, the opportunity should have a limited downside and a potentially good upside. And this is where the current ‘wave of change’ that Covid-19 is causing might give you a guiding policy to think about the future.

Choose wisely

A brutally pragmatic and salient point by Rumelt speaks to the choices we make regarding industry and employer: “The most common path to success is not raw innovation, but skilfully riding a wave of change.”

The pandemic is giving us a fast-forward insight as to where opportunities might lie in careers. Things that were not mentionable even six months ago are now reality: remote working and reduced commutes are just two examples. Wider changes in technology, law and consumer tastes are beyond the control of you and me, but we can harness them to our advantage.

Choose an industry that is on an upward trajectory, which will carry you along – and a long way. As that other well-known sage originating from LA – Yoda from Star Wars – said when giving celestial career advice to Luke Skywalker: ‘Choose wisely.’



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