This week we will focus on what I consider are the attributes that make for a successful digital strategist. I believe these can be grouped into 2 distinct sets; the work experience and the personal attributes, including attitude and work style. Remember that this is my personal opinion, based solely on my experience and perspective. If your experience or approach to work don’t perfectly align with this, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful. Neither am I claiming that I possess all these attributes or that the experience matches my career path. In the coming episodes I will be inviting other contributors to share their experiences and perspectives and I know that these will differ from mine.
I do feel compelled to say all this because unlike other episodes, today’s content is not philosophical or academic. It is very personal. But it is also authentic and I believe it is a critical part of the discussion. So here goes.
The first thing to understand about the role of the digital strategist is that it is a generalist role, which means you need to know something about a wide variety of subjects and disciplines. I believe the best way to learn about a subject is to have first hand experience. In other words, you can’t become a strategist as your first role out of school. I think a career path that includes hands on experience in the various disciplines is important for two reasons. First, if you have never done the work yourself, you can’t really develop an appreciation for the nuances and complexities. Second, as a strategist you will be working with a team of specialist practitioners, and in order to earn their respect they have to feel that you really know what you’re talking about. Which again takes us back to the point of first hand experience.
So a digital strategist is not an entry-level position. My recommendation is to work in environments or positions that allow you to actively manage digital media campaigns, including search campaigns, as well as roles that allow you to design and optimize user experiences and web environments. In other words, you need experience that allows for management and optimization of a variety of digital touch points.
But that isn’t enough. A true strategist doesn’t only understand the digital environment. A strong understanding of the business environment is necessary to stitch the two together. The technical knowledge needs business acumen. In other words, connecting the bits and bytes with dollars and cents. In an agency environment this usually means either account service or new business experience. This is really important since it is the skill that allows the strategist to translate the analog into digital and vice versa.
So the strategist needs both back-end and front-end experience and success. We are talking about a career path of at least a few years before evolving into a strategist. In that time, you might find that there are various front-end or back-end roles for which you are better suited. That is another way to find out if this really is your calling.
With that in mind, what are the personal attributes that make for a successful digital strategist? The first attribute, and in my opinion one of the most important ones is a sense of humility. No one likes a smart ass, and it can be very easy to aggravate others when you aren’t directly responsible for execution, but have an opinion on how things should run. I speak here from direct experience, and I can tell you that it isn’t a fun lesson to learn. Be inclusive of other opinions and ideas, ensure that credit is shared and find ways to persuade rather than direct. That is the path to long-term success in this role.
The next requirement is a sense of calm. As the strategist, you are the person in the organization who is best placed to see the big picture, and if you are freaking out, visibly and loudly, then it is a cue for everyone else to freak out. A big part of your role is to keep the ship on track and to keep everyone in the boat. And for that your highs can never be too high and your lows never too low. This sense of calm is what people will seek out in difficult times and is a real strength in a dynamic and unpredictable industry.
Hand in hand with calm is confidence. The strategist is confident in his or her answers or assertions because they have first hand experience in the various disciplines. That is why this experience is so important. Note that confidence doesn’t mean always knowing the right answer. In fact, the most confident people are perfectly fine saying they don’t have an answer but will get one shortly. Also, a word of caution here, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. For all that you will gain through a strong sense of confidence, so you will lose through displays of arrogance. It is very easy to be perceived of as arrogant when you sit in the strategist chair. Again, sadly, I speak from personal experience and some hard lessons.
And that is why emotional intelligence is important for the strategist. The ability to really understand people, their different motivations and how to communicate with them is a really central attribute to the strategist. This is because this role straddles the back-end and the front-end, and the people that work in these roles tend to communicate very differently. This is one of the greatest challenges and tensions in digital environments, getting these people to work together well, and this is one of the roles of the strategist.
And this brings me to the final key attribute of the digital strategist. This one is perhaps a little more controversial than the others since I have known many successful strategists that don’t have this trait, but frankly I don’t know how to communicate and motivate other team members without this. In my opinion, a relentless sense of optimism is critical to success. This is for a whole lot of different reasons. People like to be around optimistic people. People look to optimists to find the best path. Optimists have an easier time inspiring others because they are able to materially show them how things will get better. Yes, part of the role of the strategist is to be the canary in the coal mine and to anticipate problems before they happen, but always focusing on the negative blinds us to the easily achievable positive. And being an optimist doesn’t mean to ignore all the negatives and the obstacles. It is to understand and acknowledge them and to STILL find a positive outcome and chart the course there.
I think this sense of optimism; this relentless positivity goes hand in hand with the storytelling and communications responsibilities of the role. We work in an aspirational business and it is important to inspire others. For it is through inspiration that we influence and motivate. And that is what we do. Not through fear and arrogance and a sense of foreboding, but through optimism. And anyway, it’s a hell of a lot more fun to do work like that. And if we weren’t enjoying the work, why would we do it?
So to summarize, the successful digital strategist is a well-rounded individual with hands on experience in technical back-end operations as well as front-end client or business experience. He or she is also a confident person who exudes a sense of calm and humility. The strategist is someone with acute emotional intelligence and communication skills and a relentless sense of optimism and enthusiasm. Pretty straightforward, right?
Next week on octopus, we are going to be getting a different perspective with the first of our set of guests when we discuss the future of digital strategy. Please visit octopusdigitalstrategy.net for notes and transcripts and to comment on content. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.