Develop Your Career Strategy!

Whether we want to believe it or not, success as a TV or film writer is about more than talent. You’ve got to plan. And plot. And plan and plot some more. In polite circles, it’s called “strategy.” Here’s a short primer on what we all need to know:

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by Matthew E. May

I’ve taken up a new habit of asking successful people I know: What is your career strategy? I ask it casually, and in person, because I want to see their body language and get a sense of just how front-of-mind their answer might be.

y discovery: when it comes to careers, most folks don’t have a true strategy. I’ve gotten a knitted brow as the immediate response, accompanied by something along the lines of, “Whatd’ya mean?” (Some keep it even simpler: “Huh?”)

The reason I’ve been asking the question is simple: I believe that if you want to increase the odds of professional success, you need a strategy. And that requires you to have a useful way of thinking about strategy.

Strategy means different things to different people. Some define strategy as a vision or a plan. Others define it as optimizing the status quo, or perhaps following “best practices.” Still others deny that strategy is even possible, especially in times of great and rapid change.

I subscribe to the definition of strategy given by Roger Martin, one of the foremost thinkers on strategy and coauthor (with Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley) of the best-seller Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works: “Strategy is an integrated cascade of choices that uniquely positions a player in its market to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.” (Disclosure: I have worked with Roger helping a shared client for the past two years, and consider him a mentor.)

Before I delve into just what that “integrated cascade” is and how it can apply in the context of a career, it makes sense to unwrap the definition of strategy just a bit in terms non-business school graduates use. A few key points:

1. Career strategy matters for one simple reason: it allows you to focus your resources. The reality is that we do not have unlimited time, attention, energy, and capabilities. Few of us have the luxury of leaving our potential on the table, which will surely be the result of action absent focus.

2. Notice that the concept of planning (a to-do list of actions to be executed and timelines to be met) plays no part in this definition of strategy. We hear the phrase “strategic planning” so often that it has become synonymous with true strategy. It shouldn’t. Strategy is about choices, and choosing. In this view, strategy is not about guaranteeing success, and there is no such thing as a perfect strategy. Reason? Strategy is future-oriented, and if we know anything, it’s that the future is uncertain and we are horrible at predicting it. The best we can do is make thoughtful choices.

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