What is a business strategy consultant?
A business strategy consultant works with a company's CEO, Board, Executive and Senior Managers to provide unbiased strategic advice for various business decisions.
Like a doctor for a business, a business strategy consultant will first diagnose a company's problems and challenges before recommending strategies to fix them.
Strategy consultant work across industries in the public, private, for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.
Strategy consulting is a subset of management consulting.
What does a business strategy consultant do?
Activities a business strategy consultant might undertake include:
- Research and analysis: talking to key stakeholders and doing primary and secondary research and then analysing the results in order to develop an objective understanding of the situation in which the business finds itself, and the challenges and opportunities it faces. This culminates in a diagnosis.
- Scenario development: painting alternative pictures of what the future could look like, to aid decision-making.
- Option development and evaluation. Articulating the organisation's goals and identifying the steps the business could take to achieve them. This culminates in a proposal or recommendation.
- Establishing and initiating a plan of action: This may include preparing business cases, project plans and addressing resource allocation.
- Monitoring result and proposing adjustments: This may include building and monitoring a strategy scorecard, and using it to identify issues and make adjustments to the strategy as it is executed.
The consultant may do the work themselves, or facilitate the business through the process of doing it, or some combination of the two.
Depending on the nature of the consultant and the client's capabilities and requirements, some processes stop after step 3 above, whilst others stop after step 4.
What skills does a business strategy consultant need?
A business strategy consultant requires a specific combination of skills:
A business strategist needs to be able to work with others at the highest levels of performance at all stages in the process.
In interviewing key stakeholders to understand the challenges and opportunities the organisation faces, the strategist must quickly build rapport. They must learn to draw insights out of stakeholders which the stakeholders themselves may not fully understand or be aware of themselves, or which they may have motives to hide or disguise.
When presenting proposals and recommendations the consultant must be skilled in influencing the client towards those answers so that the client can adopt them as their own and not feel they are being imposed from the outside. Remember that as a consultant, you have only a little power, but a lot of influence.
Strategy inevitably creates both winners and losers. So not everyone is always happy to see a strategist. It is important to be able to recognise when this is happening, and to know how to handle it.
Businesses look to strategy consultants for analysis and insight to support data-driven decisions. It is therefore important to be skilled in sourcing, analysing, interpreting and presenting evidence and extracting insight from it.
Strategists must know how to work with both quantitative and qualitative data. Some knowledge of statistical data analysis is necessary.
A key skill is the ability to quickly discern what is and isn't relevant, and what is and isn't reliable and robust - to distil the signal from the noise.
Consultants don't usually make decisions themselves. That is reserved for the client. However, strategy consultants play a role in presenting analysis in the form of decision frameworks to assist decision-makers in interpreting the analysis and making decisions.
The future will be different to the past. A strategy consultant needs the ability to imagine what that future could look like even if they have never experienced it before. Similarly, they must be able to imagine innovative solutions which will work in such futures. And they must be able to describe both in ways which allow their clients to believe in them.
A strategy consultant, unlike consultants in some other fields, cannot simply recommend the same solutions as have already been used elsewhere.
Whilst not a skill in itself, curiosity is an important attribute for strategy consultants. Strategy is an unbounded problem. You need to be prepared to explore wherever the process leads you.
And strategy depends very much on understanding why. Why does this challenge or opportunity emerge? Why will this approach deliver results?
Doing strategy can be hard work. You may spend many hours analysing a situation or developing a proposal only to conclude that it is a dead-end and you have to start over. This requires dedication, commitment and resilience.
Deadlines are often tight and may be critical to the success of the organisation. And because strategy is an open-ended problem, there is always more that could be done. But without tight time management, combined with the other skills outlined here, analysis paralysis can result in the work having little impact.
Of course, a strategy consultant needs to be able to think strategically, to understand the factors and components that make strategy work. This is usually achieved by studying a wide range of frameworks, techniques and case studies. As the field is continually evolving, this learning process never ends.
How to become a strategy consultant
There are many routes to becoming a strategy consultant. You could join one of the many strategy consulting firms and work your way up through the ranks. Or you could get a job in industry and focus on rotating through a range of functions to develop your skills, eventually becoming an internal strategy consultant. There is not one right way to do it.
Many people consider a bachelor's degree as a minimum standard, but there are also internships available. And many also consider an MBA to the gold standard for strategy consultants, although opinions do vary on this matter.
A typical career path in a large strategy consultancy might look like this (specific will vary from one organisation to the next):
- Analyst/Associate: an entry-level role involved in gathering and analysing data and producing deliverables.
- Consultant: lead a team of analysts/associates.
- Engagement Manager/Project Leader: leads multiple teams, manages projects and coordinates with clients.
- Principal: oversees client relationship management, project delivery, oversees project delivery and sells new work.
- Partner: partners sell work, drive strategy, manage a portfolio of projects, and share in the profits.
There is no standard path for the industry route.
Always remember: a strategy consultant's role is to help their clients keep ahead of an ever-evolving future. What works and is good enough today won't be tomorrow. So it is a process of continuous improvement and growth. A strategist who rests on their laurels is of no use to anyone.
Because strategy consulting is such a broad topic, it makes sense to choose a niche. This may be a particular market or industry. Or it may be a particular step in the process outlined above.
Types of strategy consultancies
There are a wide range of types of strategy consultancies, such as:
- Top tier pure play strategy consultancies, often called "the big three", usually include McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company.
- Management consulting firms with large strategy practices like Accenture, Capgemini, L.E.K Consulting, OC&C Strategy and Oliver Wyman.
- The "big 4" professional services firms, PwC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG, all have consultancy practices.
- Many smaller niche or boutique strategy consulting practices.
- Independent strategy consultants (like StratNavApp.com founder Chris C Fox Consulting Limited!)
There are a number of roles which overlap with that of the strategy consultant, yet which remain different:
- Facilitator: a facilitator may guide an executive team through the process of developing and executing a strategy, but will have no direct input into the process or outcomes. E.g. they won't do any analysis, develop or evaluate the options themselves etc. but will guide the client through the process of doing it.
- Coach: coaches typically ask probing questions, which may be strategic in nature, but don't typically provide any specific guidance or answers.
- Advisor: advisors give advice, which may be strategic, based on their own existing past experience and knowledge.
These roles are not better or worse than strategy consulting, just different. Each has there place. It is important for you to decide which you are, and for your clients to decide which they need.