What It Means to Be a Strategic Adviser: The skills and experience you’ll need

Type: Features|July 2017
By Stephen Welch
30 June 2017
Cropped shot of a businesswoman giving a presentation in the boardroom
Credit: istockphoto.com/PeopleImages

So you want to be a strategic communication adviser? Congratulations, that???s a great goal, and a rewarding job. But the big question is: What exactly the job and how do you get there?

What is strategic advising?

First I want to bust a big myth: You cannot choose to become a strategic adviser. It???s impossible.

Being a strategic adviser is not something you can decide to do yourself. Ever seen someone dance the tango by themselves? It???s ridiculous!

The successful tango involves both people working together for mutual benefit. Or, to put it in business language, the role of the strategic adviser is to help business leaders understand the implications of their decisions, be in step with them and guide them where necessary.

Being a strategic adviser requires someone else, usually a business leader, to want to partner with you. Partnership is in the eye of the beholder.

Clearly the specifics of the role of strategic adviser will vary from organization to organization, but the typical adviser role requires you to:

  1. Serve as a sounding board for senior leaders in the business. Help them think through the implications of their decisions and guide them when necessary.
  2. Play a strong role in strategy development for that particular business unit or division.
  3. Have a wide perspective to be able to see the business as a whole and the key imperatives that need to guide the decisions people make.

Easy to say, hard to do. But the good news is that you can quickly identify the skills you need and learn them.

What are skills required and how do I acquire them?

In my experience, strategic advising skills fall into three main zones:

Technical skills. These are the specific skills related to mastery in your profession. For communication professionals, this will be the basic tools of the job: knowledge of the different kinds of stakeholder maps, the elements of storytelling, audience research and analysis, measuring impact, etc. This will also include essential tools and frameworks of the profession like the IABC Global Standard. You may even have a professional accreditation such as a CMP, or MCIPR (Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (UK)).

Business knowledge and skills. You need to speak the language of your audience or customer. This is about having a wide perspective, understanding the value chain, knowing the key TLAs (three-letter acronyms) of your business. Where in the business cycle are you? Which of your products or divisions are you managing for cash? How does your performance compare to competitors? What are the big business risks and how can you as a communicator help avoid them? Unless you can talk cogently about these issues (and more), your business audience will not take you seriously as an interlocutor. You can???t communicate, influence and partner with someone unless you speak their language.

Consulting and advisory skills. These are the skills that allow you to translate your technical expertise into action???and persuade someone to act on your advice. These will be skills like how to earn trust via the trust equation, moving people around on your stakeholder map, the four types of advisers and how to recognise the situation when each is applicable, how to build your network, the different grammatical ???moods??? for advice giving, techniques for framing and focusing conversations, etc.

The bad news is that most communicators find it easy to fall into the trap of only building their technical skills. These are great, but they only get you so far as a communicator. And the really bad news is that the more senior you get, the less you use your technical skills on a day-to-day basis. When was the last time the most senior communicator in your organization issued a stock exchange notice, updated the website, or spoke to a local community organizer?

Your technical skills may help you get to the C-suite, but they aren???t enough to keep you there.

The good news is that these skills are easily taught. You can learn these skills and techniques easily and them apply them immediately the next day to jump-start your career.

But in addition to some specific training, it helps to think about your own career path.

How do I forge a career path that helps me get there?

Traditional communication career paths are vertical and linear. This approach gives you deep technical expertise and experience, but comes with the risk of a one-dimensional perspective. I don???t think there is one single answer to ???What is the best career path???? but when I look at those people who operate at the strategic adviser level, they typically have these types of experiences or career characteristics:

  • Have operated across the different genres of the profession, gaining experience in media relations, IR, PR, government affairs, internal communication, local community communication, etc.
  • Have had different roles in different organizations in different sectors, and therefore have a wide perspective.
  • Have worked in different types of organizations: corporate, agency, independent, management consulting, academia, etc.
  • Have perhaps even spent some time outside the profession in a related field like marketing, CSR, journalism, reputation research, etc.
  • Have not been afraid to move sideways to advance their career, maybe to take a risk to fill a gap in their portfolio. That could include moving from being a big fish in small pond to being a small fish in big one.
  • Invest time in building their external network to learn from others and practice some of the influencing and networking techniques in a ???safe??? environment. When was the last time you invested in your own career?

In short, if you want to achieve the goal of moving up the career levels of the IABC Global Standard, then you need to treat your career like you would any campaign: Start with some objectives, work out the tactics, think about how you are going to target particular elements, and track and monitor progress.

The U.K. government, for example, makes a point of helping communicators grow and develop their career by regularly moving people around different government departments and agencies, and also helping them take on roles across the different genres of the profession.

In summary

Being a strategic adviser is not something that you can control alone. Someone has to want to partner with you.

Technical skills are necessary, but not sufficient.

In my experience, those with linear careers find it harder to develop the perspective required.

Stephen Welch

Stephen Welch helps organizations with culture change, communication and leadership, and explores the connections between behavior and job/organization design. He is a member of the Market Research Society and the Chartered Institute of Publications, a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and past president of the IABC U.K. chapter. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenwelch11.

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