Kim Mackenzie from Ladies who Strategize compares strategy to jazz. You cannot learn it in books or classes. You learn it by simply doing it. There’s no shortcut, you just have to try, fail and try again.

Oh, boo hoo.

There seems to be a prevalent belief that agencies are hiding their Strategy How To Guides from the juniors and the mids. Young strategists bemoan the struggle of not having hands on, minute-by-minute direction. Seeking the schooling they crave, some do online courses, others attend conferences and pour over books. Solid options for the 101s, but without the basic dance moves, you’re reading about the foxtrot with two left feet.

Here’s a few learning concepts to chew on.

Strategy is like jazz. You cannot learn it in books or classes. You learn it by simply doing it. A lot. It's an apprenticeship. You put in the reps, you get better. There's no shortcut. No magic words which make you a ‘real’ strategist. No yellow brick road that's linear and without peril.

Like a jazz musician, you need to learn the basic beats. No way ‘round it. Most strategy projects exist in a familiar structure, so learn it. And, like jazz, you have to start by developing your style early and often. You do this by doing the work. Putting in the reps. Trying things out. Failing. Trying again. 

Magic happens when you uncover your natural strengths and play to them. Why? Because that’s when you can start improvising. Me? I love facilitation. It was the first skill I realized I had a lot of natural ability in, so I leaned into it, hard. I built out workshops, organized jam sessions, and built up a skillset. This led to a philosophy around what we do: strategy is not being the smartest person in the room, it’s making everyone in the room feel smart, capable, alive.

Want another hot scoop? We’re paid the big bucks for our POV. Point of view. By the time you get in front of a client, they’re eager to see if you’ll be a useful person with the smarts that will make their business thrive (or, at the very least, make them look clever in front of their boss).

How do you get a POV? Reading. Watching. Paying attention. Engaging. If you aren’t ingesting culture, news, business, art, music, and politics in whatever formats you find useful, you’re useless. So, read. Watch. Look at art. Attend plays. Make stand-up comedy a regular meal. All these things scramble around in your brain, help you make connections, and set up the type of thinking that’s delicious for clients, colleagues, and everyone around you. So that they, too, can feel smart, capable, and alive.

Figure how you work best. Is it writing on a whiteboard? Talking with another strategist? Taking a shower to warm up your brain? That’s on you to untangle and unlock.

Learn how to differentiate the signal from the noise. People talk a lot but can often say little. Learn to observe what’s unsaid and what’s really happening.

Lastly, for heaven’s sake, don’t be shy! Be annoyingly inquisitive and talk to people. I know we tend to grow up in libraries, but we also need to have the moxie to go past these shy tendencies. We should never assume we understand people’s reactions or behaviors. The easiest way to be valuable (and grow) is to do what your CSO cannot: leave the office and do vox pops on the street. It will be those pull quotes and observations that will win pitches and win over brand managers. Trust me on this one.

I came into strategy from academia, television post-production, and marketing. But none of those jobs gave me the skills to become a strategist. It was all the trying, failing, trying, failing, and then gradually improving that made me the beast I am today.

So, try. Fail. Try again. There’s no manual, no guide, no map. But there are a lot of opportunities to get in those reps.

Future of Strategy 2021

Kim Mackenzie's piece appeared originally in WARC's Future of Strategy 2021 report, which you can read here.