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When you're the only strategist
5 tips to being an island of strategy in a sea of tactics
There’s an official career field in the Army titled “Strategist.” Its nomenclature is “FA59,” and if you had to label the last decade-and-a-half of my life down to a 4 character alphanumeric, that’s me.
We have a career manager that, to varying degrees, has a lot of sway about where we go and what we do. Several years ago I was more or less “voluntold” to go and be the only strategist on staff at Second Infantry Division in South Korea.
For those unfamiliar, an army division is a tactical instrument of warfare. Seize X, occupy Y, destroy Z…in order to…achieve nirvana. You get the picture. Depending on how its configured, it can have somewhere on the order of ten- and twenty-thousand troops assigned.
Nowadays our career field doesn’t send strategists to the division level (we’re typically assigned to higher headquarters’), but the year was still valuable in that it taught me how to live and breathe and act as the physical embodiment of a sore thumb.
Put another way—how to be the only strategist on staff.
Learn the lingo. There’s a pace, a pattern, a value system, and a structure that every staff lives by. It’s not written down anywhere, except in members’ brains everywhere. It’s culture, and you’d better figure it out quick. You’ll be an instant outsider, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be perceived as a threat (if you let it).
Build allies and partners. No strategist accomplishes anything alone. You’ll need help, you’ll need someone who knows better than you do. Reach out to allies and partners that can help bridge the gap between what you know and what you need to know to accomplish something meaningful. Many others on staff with me that year had recently graduated from the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth. It’s a school, designed, to fill division (and brigade) staffs with uber-competent officers tailor-trained to do that. I had come from a teaching assignment at West Point, done an online course in place of that prestigious two-year program these particular peers had done. To say I was behind is no understatement. But these peers were generous, gracious, and helped me learn a few tricks to do what they could, and in turn, I shared with them what I could about connecting tactics and operations with strategy.
Always be pitching. Some won’t agree, but the value a strategist provides is in new ideas that the leadership is free to use or discard as they see fit. Others would aim to have a high rate of success, that you should only pitch ones that’re sure to succeed, so as to keep the win percent high (i.e., 1/1 or 2/2, 100 percent). I go the other direction. You’ve always got to have ideas—several—about how the organization might be improved strategically. A recent commander of mine had an essay program that functioned as a more-fully-fleshed-out suggestion box. I sent in 9 separate one-page essays about how to improve the organization. None were taken up immediately, but with some elbow grease, one of the 9 is up and surviving (so far).
Suggest, suggest, suggest. This is a corollary to the above, a bit subtler, but in the same vein. Nudge the organization in ways you can, mostly informal, towards the better. That’s not to cross a line. Strategists’ are subordinate to leadership. But you can set out to suggest a better path at every fork in the road.
Ideas don’t age, but they can go stale. For some ideas, you can afford to outwait a member of the leadership that won’t see the logic you believe to be self-evident. Outlast them. Ideas don’t die, it’ll still be around and of use if you wait. But then for other ideas, there is a “right” time, the time may be now, so go get it done now. Timing is to know the difference between the two, critical when you’re the only person in the organization thinking strategy around-the-clock.
It can be lonely being the only strategist on a staff. But it doesn’t have to be. You can still get a lot done. Adapt to the environment, orient yourself toward success, and close with and destroy strategic problems!