The many faces of the strategist

A strategist has many roles and many faces

The job description of a professional strategic planning manager or a strategist is manifold. Similarly, expectations on the strategist are diverse. It seems as if almost anybody has his own unique idea of the traits, tasks, and responsibilities of a strategist. Not surprisingly, these many facets are fairly contradictory. Hence, a strategist is torn between many worlds.


The function of a professional strategic planner is mainly found in larger organizations. Many of these see the need to have a dedicated strategic planning team. Larger organizations are the ones that can afford to have such a team. In smaller organizations, the owners or the top management team tend to take on the role of the strategist. Another option is to assign the task of strategic planning to one or more middle managers who fulfill this task besides their other responsibilities. Of course, external consultants are another option.

Although this article refers to professional strategic planning managers, about every person responsible for this task will recognize himself / herself in the contradictions described below.

Various roles of a professional strategist

So far for common sense. There is even research about the many faces of a strategist. McKinsey conducted a survey among nearly 350 senior strategists from a broad variety of industries worldwide in 2013. Thy came up with 13 facets of the strategists role that yielded in five clusters:

The architect

  • Competitive-advantage officer
  • Performance challenger
  • Business developer

The mobilizer

  • Strategic-capability builder
  • Performance challenger
  • Project deliverer

The visionary

  • Trend forecaster
  • Innovator
  • Business developer

The surveyor

  • Trend forecaster
  • Business developer
  • Government/regulatory strategist

The fund manager

  • Portfolio optimizer
  • Resource reallocator
  • Decision-process facilitator

Facets that don’t fit in any cluster

  • Plan facilitator
  • Strategy formulator

The McKinsey article explains those clusters or archetypes in more detail. For our purposes, this overview will be sufficient to give you an idea about the diverse roles a strategist can take on. Or is expected to take on.

This variety of roles and tasks almost inevitably leads to contradictions in a strategist’s day-to-day work. These roles may have different priorities; they require different skills and approaches. Different groups in the organization will have different expectations on his work.

My personal experience from work in strategy departments as well as from reading and studies leads to a similar picture. Here are my pairs of opposites that constitute the framework for the strategist’s everyday work:

The strategist …

  • Lives in the present, has to take into consideration the past, but has to focus all his doings on the future
  • Has to build on his experience, but has to be as open-minded as it gets
  • Has to build on his experience, but is aware that this experience becomes obsolete at an increasing speed
  • Has to juggle with static and changing elements in his environment – and to judge which element goes into which category
  • Has to know the textbook approaches, but has to adapt the ways of doing strategy to the changing environment
  • Has to have the best possible knowledge of his organizations, but has to remain unbiased and objective
  • Has to get across his message to both, those people that virtually live in the past and those that see the future
  • Has to juggle with various expectations of his internal customers and with varying understandings of strategy:
    • Some expect the one solution. Others want a basket of strategic options
    • Some want to see the complete path from here to target. Others just need a vision and a rough direction. Still others prefer a one-step-after-the-other guideline.
    • Some are results orientated (mostly in top management). Others are concerned with the problems of execution (mostly middle managers).
    • Some understand strategy making as an ongoing process. Other rely on an annual strategic planning cycle.
  • Has to lead the strategy process to a viable result. At the same time he has to make sure that all relevant managers at least feel involved in the decision making process
  • Has to work in the best interest of the business as a whole. At the same time he has juggle with different political agendas and biases
  • Has to be focused and specific, but has to see the big picture and to capture an issue with all its aspects
  • Has to be focused, but needs to have a wide range of interests
  • Has to be curious and questioning, but needs an excellent filter function
    (as Clay Shirky famously stated ‘It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure’)
  • Has to make decisions based on incomplete information, but is expected to deliver results that work
  • Has to bridge the gaps in knowledge and culture between corporate center and individual business units
  • Has to balance diverse strategic priorities at corporate level vs. at business unit level
  • Has to be optimistic, but also realistic
  • Has to manage the process of strategy making like a good project manager, but is aware that strategy making is the responsibility of the managers

What an interesting mix!