The most significant thing to come out of the announcement of a reshuffle of the David Jones management team yesterday was the creation of the executive strategic planning role.
The new role will be filled by Matthew Durbin, formerly the head of David Jones’ financial services business. The company said in a statement that the role will report to the CFO, and will manage the implementation of the department store’s strategy plan.
The elevation of strategy by David Jones’ leadership is no isolated decision; it is part of a trend, according to the managing director of Watermark Search Nick Waterworth.
The recruitment firm, which specialises in placing highly paid managers and executives, has been inundated with requests for leaders able to think strategically.
“Strategic skills are absolutely ‘in’, and not just for pure strategy jobs with that in the title,” Waterworth says.
“Our clients are all asking for strategic thought, because the world is a complicated, rapidly changing place.”
When businesses ask for a strategic thinker, they mean someone not stuck in the status quo.
“There are plenty of very good executives who can run your business as it is today, who can provide leadership and management,” he says. “But what’s needed in a lot of organisations is people who have the ability to really think ahead, and get a sense of what’s shifting.”
So how should leaders promote or hire such crucial individuals in their companies?
Waterworth says the skill of strategic thinking is hard to teach, and often difficult to spot just from an individual’s resume.
“It’s a soft skill, a personality trait and a mindset,” he says, adding that his clients rarely have qualifications or backgrounds firmly in mind when hiring for these positions.
“An MBA majoring in strategy doesn’t make you a strategic thinker. It’s a skill that is to a degree quite inherent. You can develop it, but by no means everybody does. There are people who are either incapable or aren’t brave enough to think strategically.”
Paul Hunter, the founder and CEO of the Institute of Strategic Management, says an MBA is a good starting point for a career in strategy, but isn’t enough on its own.
Hunter explains: “Academics globally are understanding strategy research and education is too economically based. We have a lot of models, a lot of theory… but doing it in practice, and communicating it, is key.”
How to know if the person you’re hiring has a strategic bent?
As a specific degree or background isn’t enough to spot a strategic thinker, Waterwork says careful interviewing and reference checking is very important.
“In the executive search business, we say prior behaviour is a good indicator of future behaviour.”
“If you want somebody who’s going to help you take risks, you want to hire somebody who’s taken some measured risks in the past. So, smart, behavioural-based interviewing, is the most effective tactic, coupled with good reference checking.”
Being aware of how a person will fit into your team is also crucial, adds Hunter.
Organisations with a very technically minded CEO would benefit from hiring someone with a creative bent. But strategy is just as often about technical developments, which is why creative CEOs should consider a technically minded strategy executive.
Hunter says businesses have two options as to who to appoint to a strategic executive role. There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches, and which is preferable will vary depending on a company’s challenges.
The first is to bring in someone with a consulting background.
“They’ll have lots of industry and strategy experience, but don’t know about the company,” Hunter says. “They also won’t be overly experienced in a key part of the role, which is about communication and driving change. They’ve been advising, not doing.”
The second approach is to promote an insider, the option David Jones has taken.
They’ll know your business and your industry, and be used to managing and communicating. But they might not be used to thinking strategically.
Where to put your creative guru?
Hiring a chief strategy officer and having them report directly to your CEO is one way to embed strategic thinking within your organisation. The Strategic Management Institute encourages businesses, among other things, to do just that.
The role of CSO is still evolving, as businesses increasingly add one to their executive suit. And the exact job description of the CSO will differ greatly according to the business.
“A CSO at Wesfarmers for example is highly concerned with the management of a portfolio of businesses, an orientation towards finance and acquisitions,” says Hunter. “At David Jones the emphasis is on managing a portfolio of assets… and with an emphasis on customers and customer retention and acquisition.”
Of course, the CEO still owns the strategy, stresses Hunter. The role of the Chief Strategy Officer, or CSO, is to complement the CEO.
Hunter says the CSO is responsible for research and analysing the trends worth informing the CEO about, as well being charged with communicating and implementing the strategy set by the CEO to others in the organisation.