What do you tell people you do?
I work on the biggest, highest revenue product, responsible for making sure we grow revenue for that product in our local market. My specific job is to identify ways we can grow revenue each year, pull together the different teams required to execute on initiatives and then track progress to make sure we’re getting the growth outcomes we target.
What do you really do?
I do identify ways we can grow revenue, but probably only 20% of those ideas are novel. The vast majority of what I identify and plan for each year are things that we’ve tried before but not executed well (e.g. joint go-to-market with another product team, improving training for our channel partners) or things that you need to do habitually as the market changes (e.g. competitor scanning and competitive sales training, restructuring the sales team).
Much of the year also gets taken up by planning (agreeing the plan, presenting the plan for approval) and then reporting on progress against that plan (quarterly business reviews, executive presentations). It can be incredible how much time it takes to get agreement (aka alignment) on the plan, largely because all the plans from the different business areas directly flow through to who gets resources and budget, and the setting of targets.
What is the biggest misconception about the role?
The biggest misconception is that the strategy team has the ability and authority to change the core product. When people see “strategy” in a role title, it often conveys a level of authority, but in Big Tech, product is king.
Even if the strategy team has a set of recommendations for changing the core product, those go through a lengthy process of review and consideration by the product team. The product team will get these requests from multiple markets. They compare them against the product roadmap, their vision for the product, and then decide what they will implement and what will take priority. All of this equals limited control by the strategy team. It then follows that Strategy Managers focus more on how you can drive revenue with the existing product (think go-to-market), rather than coming up with bold ideas of how to change it.
Why do most people get into this role?
So many people come into this role thinking that they are going to ask the billion dollar questions that will change the direction of the product (and company). Don’t get me wrong, there are a handful of “Strategy” jobs in global HQ where this probably is the job. But your typical Strategy Manager in big tech is not doing this, they are working out how to optimise the selling of the product and make more money.
I was definitely guilty of this. I spent a lot of time thinking about questions that were well outside my scope. What I will say, however, is that even though this can be seen as “wasted work”, it contributed to me understanding the product more deeply which made me better at my core job. It also helps your reputation internally to be thinking bigger than your immediate scope.
How do people typically enter this role?
Most external hires for the Strategy Manager role come from strategy consulting (sorta makes sense!). The recruiters target the top tier firms and often look for some experience consulting to Technology or Media clients to make the ramp up easier.
Many others transfer into Strategy from other areas inside the company (often Finance, Sales or Partnerships). These people are expected to bring a deep knowledge of the product and/or business to make up for a lack of formal strategy training. These roles can be hotly contested internally as Strategy is perceived to have significant influence and access to information.
What main skills do people need to bring to this role?
Structured thinking and communication. You need to be able to build out your initiatives, plans and presentations in a way that makes the business case (benefits vs. costs) really clear to both senior executives that will sign it off and teams that will implement it. In Big Tech there is a real obsession with the “1 pager” or the “memo” which basically means distilling a complex initiative into a concise, compelling case for change. Those who can’t nail this really struggle to get their initiatives funded and plans signed off.
Stakeholder management. Big Tech (ex Amazon I’d say) is big on consensus between senior leaders across functions (they call it cross-functional decision making). So take your usual number of stakeholders in a strategy role and multiply it by three :)
In many jobs this is considered a “soft” skill, but in this role your ability to align different stakeholders to your plan is essential if you want to get anything done. You have a lot of people to get on board and it can be less acceptable in Big Tech to just plough ahead without cross-functional support.
What opportunities do people typically get after this role?
The short answer is a lot! The obvious one is that if you impress senior stakeholders, you can take your pick of roles in other functions - Product, Marketing, Policy, Sales, and Strategy functions for other products or markets.
Smaller, or earlier tech companies are also a popular choice. The benefit is that you still have the tech culture and ways of working, but it’s an opportunity to have more of an influence on the direction of the company at an earlier stage.
Recently, I’ve also seen the top tier consulting companies in the market trying to lure Big Tech Strategy Managers back into consulting. They have lost plenty of talent to Big Tech and are starting to see the value of having consultants that are traditionally trained but have also had experience working on the inside of technology companies.
What’s the most frustrating part of the role?
It can be very hard to change the status quo. Big Tech is big. The products you are working on are often pretty successful before you join, so much of the energy is about keeping that momentum rather than kick starting something new. There is much more risk in changing something that is already generating tonnes of cash for the company.
This makes sense, but it can sometimes feel like there isn’t much payoff from thinking outside the box. I assume this would be different if you were working on a failing product, but for those that are doing pretty well, you can feel like a bit of a caretaker as opposed to a pioneer.
What would only other people who do your role know about it?
The job titles and job descriptions are terrible, they don’t describe what you do at all!
There are two parts to this… Firstly, roles are far more flexible in Big Tech than other industries. People don’t bat an eyelid at the scope of a role changing significantly from year to year, so long as it is agreed between the person and their manager. It allows for teams to realign around new priorities in a very nimble way, but it also means that job descriptions are out of date very quickly.
Secondly, the recruiting team doesn’t sweat the job description too much. They will have conversations with the hiring manager about the role and what they are looking for but don’t necessarily push for a high quality role description. Usually, they get so many candidates that it doesn’t really impact the quality of their pipeline.
What would the haters say about this role?
“You just make pretty slides”... and what I would say back is “Yes, I do make pretty slides”. What this misses is that work can be pretty, as well as robust and well-socialised among the executives you need to have on board.
Strategy Managers have to nail down some pretty senior people to the point where they and their teams will invest their resources through the year. You can’t do that with work output that looks like you just drew it on the back of a napkin. The thinking and the analysis are the priority, but never underestimate how much trust you can build when your work product looks robust and professional.
What advice do you have for people considering this role?
Really think about what the role actually is, rather than what it sounds like it might be.
I have spoken to so many consultants (especially) who have a romantic notion that they will be asking the most pointy strategic questions to the CEO in their first few months. There is this assumption that is basically like a strategy case where you work with the client’s CEO, but just inside a Big Tech company. In reality, that is not what most Strategy Manager roles are, so you need to be ok with that.
That being said, things change so quickly in tech so you can definitely shape your responsibilities towards things you find most interesting or impactful. There is also plenty of opportunity to change roles internally and it is actively encouraged every 2 years or so, so you can really choose your own adventure.
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