Skills Needed for Business Strategy and How to Improve Them

Strategy Skills

How can you improve your business strategy skills if you don’t have a related educational background? As a strategy professional, I know that a lot of students, professionals and business owners are interested in business strategy. If you are not educated in strategic management or something related, you may think it is too late or too difficult to learn how to use business strategy in your daily work. This could not be further from the truth. It is entirely possible to improve your strategic skills without having to invest in an expensive studies or training.

In this article, I will give you eleven tips on how to improve your business strategy / strategic management skills.

In short, the 11 tips are:

  1. Apply strategy at your own business or own job
  2. Read this blog (and other sources)
  3. Watch YouTube videos
  4. Take (free) online courses
  5. Get a job in strategy
  6. Create analyses on your own
  7. Focus on improving your Excel & PowerPoint skills
  8. Develop a strong(er) financial acumen
  9. Learn how to communicate and present (practice!)
  10. Offer your strategic services as a side hustle
  11. Stimulate your strategic thinking in your free time: games, movies & books

This article is relevant for you if one of the following applies to you:

  • You are currently working in a non-strategy job and are interested in applying strategy to your current job or at a new job opportunity;
  • You are working in strategy but you feel you don’t have the right skill set yet;
  • You have your own business and you are interested in how you can use strategic skills that help you develop your business;
  • You are a student looking for a career in strategy.

Before I discuss the tips to improve your strategic skills in detail, I will explain the different strategic areas, as well as what skills are needed to work in the strategy field.

Strategic areas

To understand what skills are relevant to strategy, it is important that you have an understanding of the different areas, or stages, within strategy. Each of these areas deserves a lengthy article by itself. However, since that is not the purpose of this article, I will shortly touch upon the three areas of business strategy as I see it below.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking in a business context is, simply said, the thought process focusing on all factors that influence the long term success of an organization. It involves thinking about all elements, external and internal, that have an effect on your business. All this factors determine how you could reach a competitive advantage. What you do in the strategic thinking stage, is essentially hinking is basically thinking about the future of your business.

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is essentially the step that comes after strategic thinking. After looking at all aspects surrounding your business, you have to make a plan on how your business is going to deal with all that. In the strategic planning stage, you define the direction of your business using all the information from the strategic thinking phase.

Strategy Execution

After developing a strategic plan, you want to implement that strategy, right? Without implementation, making a strategic plan is worth very little. Strategy consulting firms are often ‘accused’ of delivering the plan and leaving the implementation to the organization itself. Strategy execution can be difficult though. If you have a small business, it may be a bit easier, but if you have many employees, departments and processes to deal with, it can be complex.

What are Strategy Skills?

Strategic skills are skills that are needed to be successful in these three areas of strategy. In this article, the skills I mention are mostly focused on strategic thinking and strategic planning. This doesn’t mean I find strategy execution less important. It only means that for strategy execution, in my view a different skill set is needed. In that sense, strategic thinking and planning are more related to each other.

What Skills Are Required in Strategy Jobs?

To understand what skills are necessary for strategic work, I did some research on skills that are frequently asked for in strategy job opportunities. I looked for 10 random job offers in strategy consulting firms as well as internal strategic roles (different hierarchical levels). This small sample gives a good first impression of the skills needed for strategic works. Below I listed the hard skills and soft skills that are frequently mentioned in these vacancies.

Hard Skills Required for Strategic Work

Hard skills are skills that are directly related to the content of the work. By hard skills, usually abilities and knowledge are meant that are trainable and easily quantifiable. Below I have listed the hard skills that appeared in the sample of 10 strategy vacancies 3 times or more.

Strategy Hard SkillsNumber of Times asked for in 10 Strategy Jobs
Market Research, Hypothesis Definition & Identify Opportunities6
Strategy & Vision Definition6
Financial Analysis  / Quantitative Skills5
(Advanced) Excel Skills4
PowerPoint Skills4
Writing Skills4

Soft Skills Required for Strategic Work

By soft skills, I mean personal and interpersonal skills that are related to how you work. Below I have listed the soft skills that appeared in the sample of 10 strategy vacancies 3 times or more.

Strategic Soft SkillsNumber of Times asked for in 10 Strategy Jobs
Analytical & Problem Solving Skills10
Communication & Persuasion Skills10
Relationship Building & Stakeholder Management5
Proactiveness / Hands On Mentality4
Project / Change management4
Flexibility (in a fast paced environment)4
Presentation Skills3
Team Work / Collaboration3

Disclaimer: I left out language skills as these are not specifically strategy related. I also left out educational qualifications because I believe everyone could obtain strategic skills, even though a strategic educational background is an advantage. Furthermore, I left out managerial/leadership skills that depend strongly on your experience, such as leading a team. These are not skills specific to strategy.

Other Skills

From my own experience, I can say that the outcomes of my research is quite accurate. Next to the skills mentioned above, I would like to add some skills that are relevant from my own experience:

  • Scenario Planning
  • Commercial Awareness
  • Data Drivenness

How to Improve Your Business Strategy Skills

Now that we have the skills clear that are necessary for strategic work, I am going to give you 11 tips on how to acquire these skills. Some of these recommendations are more generic, while others are aimed at specific skills. I am focusing on tips that are not going to cost you a lot of money.

1.      Apply strategy at your own business or own job

One of the best ways to acquire strategic skills is to just apply them to your daily work. Whether you have your own business or have a regular job: it is always possible to use strategy in your work.

You can apply strategy to your daily work by making use of strategic tools or frameworks: Try to do market research and make strategic analyses using existing tools. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.  You can find articles on easy to use strategy tools here: Strategy Tools

If you have a non-strategy job, you can still make strategic analyses for your company. You could ask your supervisor whether you could spend some time on making strategic analyses for the company. As you saw in the research, proactiveness is one of the skills asked for in strategy! More often than not your supervisor will react positively. If you can’t do it during work hours, there is always the option of trying to do some analysis on your own.

By applying strategy to your own job, you are working on many of the in demand strategy skills at once.

2.      Read this blog (and other sources)

If you don’t have an educational background in strategic management, I can imagine it would be hard for you to start doing strategic analysis out of nothing. There are many free sources available where you can learn more about strategy. My number one recommendation is, unsurprisingly, this very blog you’re reading! But there are more valuable sources to find online and offline. In terms of books, I listed some suggestions on business strategy below:

  • Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, a classic theoretical book about strategy;
  • Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt
  • The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life by Avinash K. Dixit & Barry J. Nalebuff

Another fantastic source for strategic content is the unparalleled Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/topic/strategy

Apart from articles and books directly focused on strategy, you could also look for sources that tell you more about one specific skills, such as financial analysis or persuasion/influencing.

3.      Watch YouTube videos & listen to podcasts

A great (and for me personally more fun) way to learn about strategy is to watch YouTube channels and listen to podcasts about strategy or about one of the strategic skills.

There are videos and podcasts about each one of the strategic hard skills and soft skills. You just have to pick one you want to focus on and do your research.

Some podcast examples that (often) focus on strategic topics:

  • HBR IdeaCast (from Harvard Business Review), a podcast featuring leading business thinkers
  • Inside the Strategy Room, a Podcast with McKinsey executives;
  • The Strategy Skills Podcast, a Podcast with BCG & McKinsey partners about strategy.

4.      Take (free) online courses

Another tip to work on your strategic skills is to do online courses. There are so many options for current and future strategy professionals that are either free or low cost! Some great free or low cost sources are:

  • Udemy
  • LinkedIn Learning
  • Coursera
  • Edx

5.      Get a job in strategy

If your ambition is to have a career in strategy, then there are many opportunities out there that do not directly require strategy experience.  On the job learning is the best way to obtain strategic skills. It may be easier said than done, and if you have your own business this does not apply to you. But if want a career in strategy, then there are possibilities. Rather than going for a purely strategic job opportunity, you could also looks for jobs that involve a link to strategy. Potential jobs that may have a strategic component:

  • Management consultancy roles are quite diverse and depending on the project could include strategic thinking;
  • Business Development & Marketing jobs have a strong strategic link;
  • Jobs focusing on digital strategy. If you have a background in IT and are interested in strategy, digital strategy could be your area, where you are the link between technology and strategy.
  • Product Manager roles require strategic work on a product/service level.

6.      Create strategic analyses on your own

If you’re interested in strategy and you want to learn more about it, one way to do this is by creating your own strategic analysis of existing companies. That’s what I am doing on this blog as well: I often create SWOT analyses or other strategic analyses of large multinational companies. You could do the same. There is plenty of information publicly available. This is a great and easy way to work on your strategic skills. You could even publish these analyses on your own blog or LinkedIn page to make people aware of your skills and ambitions.

7.      Focus on improving on your Excel & PowerPoint skills

Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint are critical skills to master for strategy professionals. Having advanced Excel skills will help you analyze (financial) data used to make strategic decisions. Secondly, PowerPoint skills are essential to be able to present your analysis and communicate the outcomes.

If you are looking to improve your Excel skills, I highly recommend the ExcelIsFun Channel on YouTube. This guy is an Excel master and he explains the possibilities in a fantastic way for both beginners and advanced users. You can find an extensive tutorial consisting of 24 parts here:

8.      Develop a strong(er) financial acumen

Being able to speak the language of financial professionals is a critical strategic skill. You don’t have to be at the level of an accountant or a financial analyst, but you should have a solid financial foundation. Even if you do not have a financial education background, this is not as hard as it looks. There are many YouTube videos or cheap online courses available that help you develop this essential skill.

9.      Learn how to communicate and present (practice!)

Communication and presentation skills are going to help you build relationships and convince people that the strategic direction you have in mind is the right one. Actually, this skill is not only necessary for strategic work, but for all business professionals.

One way you could improve your communication and presentation skills is by practicing on your own. Once you made a strategic analysis (or any other presentation), it is great practice to present while you record your presentation and watch it afterwards. By doing this, you become aware of what you are doing right and how you could improve. Perhaps you’re constantly looking at the floor, or perhaps you don’t speak clear enough. If you don’t watch yourself, you will never be aware of your unconscious behavior. I strongly recommend every professional in any job to do this. It is amazing what you will learn. An extra advantage is that you don’t feel the pressure from other people’s eyes pointing at you.

10.  Offer your strategic services as a side hustle

If you already have some strategic knowledge, you can build on this knowledge by offering to make strategic analyses for businesses in your area or online. For example, you could suggest to help a friend, family member or acquaintance who has his own business by setting or improving a strategy and making analyses. You could start out offering your services for free, and once you feel more confident, agree on a price and earn some income on the side. This would be a win-win situation! If you don’t know many business owners, you can also consider offering your services on website like Fiverr, a platform for freelance services.

11.  Stimulate your strategic thinking in your free time: games, movies & books

This is kind of a bonus tip. One of the most fun ways to unconsciously work on your strategic thinking capacity, is to play games, read non theoretical books and watch movies with a strategic component. This is not going to help you land a strategic job or directly apply any lessons learned to your own company, but it is fun way to stimulate you mind to think strategically. Some examples of games, movies & books with a strategic component:

  • Games: I highly recommend chess. If this game does not excite you, there are also plenty of strategic computer games out there;
  • Movies: check out my article specifically on strategic movies here: Strategy Movies
  • Non-theoretical books:  books & biographies from visionaries, such as Steve Jobs’ or Elon Musk’s biography. Another recommendation I have for you is Shoe Dog, about founder of Nike Phil Knight.

Hopefully these tips are useful to you. if you have any other tips or tricks, please let me know in the comments!

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