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Shaman, Sherpa, Showman: The three roles of a strategist

By Philip Black

Over the past few months, I’ve been recruiting for my team of strategists. Through that process, I've met and spoken with a wide variety of strategy professionals. Brand strategists. Digital strategists. Content and campaign strategists. Those who considered themselves technologists and those with a more traditional MBA background.

In one of my interviews, the candidate asked me what made a good strategist. He was asking me to spell out my philosophy of strategy. Which got me thinking.

At baseline, the strategist needs to have a rigorous and inqusitive mindset. The ability to analyse a broad and tangled range of data or inputs, identifying what’s missing, knowing what to ask, and then synthesising it all into clear findings. And to make the rubber hit the road, they must be able to translate these findings into guiding policies and actionable plans. No small feat.

Then, depending on the challenge before us, there are a broad range of skills that might be necessary. Knowing what type of research is needed. Facilitating discovery exercises. All the way to developing brand positioning and messaging or helping a client choose the right digital platform.

Let’s just assume for the moment that the strategist has the right mindset, aptitude and capabilities.

What, then, might set them apart? In my experience, great strategists excel in three roles: the Shaman, the Sherpa, and the Showman.

Shaman, Sherpa, Showman: The three roles of a strategist
Shaman: Getting to the Root of the Issue

A client is facing a complex issue. It could be organisational. Or how the business sells to prospects. Or how it crafts and delivers messaging.

Whatever the challenge, they’re experiencing discomfort or even outright pain. All of which may be compounded by an immense pressure to perform or meet certain targets. Before anything else, the strategist needs to get at the root cause. In this, they are a shaman – a healer.

“A strategist cannot jump to actions without first forming a holistic diagnosis of the client’s situation.”

In his excellent book, Richard Rumelt articulates the ‘kernel’ of good strategy as diagnosis, guiding policy and coherent actions. A strategist cannot jump to actions without first forming a holistic diagnosis of the client’s situation. They must empathise with their client, striving to truly understand his or her world.They can simplify the issues, see through the noise, and get to the root issue.

Being the shaman will help anchor the strategist so they know how to truly help the client. What matters is that the strategist makes clients feel understood. In this sense, they’re essentially a ‘client whisperer’ – a trusted advisor who carefully and successfully walks with them through whatever trials may arise.

Shaman, Sherpa, Showman: The three roles of a strategist
Sherpa: Leading the Way Through Uncharted Territory

Clients often find themselves in places that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar – especially in industries experiencing rapid change. A great strategist is therefore like a Sherpa: finding the path and carefully guiding clients through the unknown.

This role is especially important when it comes to the world of digital. With the almost daily proliferation of new tools and channels in marketing, there is no way to be ‘an expert’ without simply diving in. Today’s strategist must be eager to educate themselves on new methods, and to help clients make smart bets on emerging techniques when appropriate.

This isn’t to suggest the strategist always knows the way. A strategy is, after all, a well-grounded and thoughtful hypothesis, meaning that risk is inherently part of the process. Rather, the strategist possesses a mindset of exploration and discovery – of always remaining one step ahead. That’s why they often find themselves in uncharted territory (typically an exciting and scary place for the client). This is both okay and expected. There may not be a stat or study to prove the approach is right. They just need to take their client to new places with confidence.

Shaman, Sherpa, Showman: The three roles of a strategist
Showman: Applying Influence to Inspire Action

The essence of strategy is change – getting an organisation to shift how they do things. And change is hard. Even with the most compelling evidence, convincing a client to implement change can be a gargantuan task. Like turning the Titanic.

Sure, you might see heads nodding and enthusiastic responses. But to take things to the next level, you’re also expected to create the motivation that will nudge a client in the right direction. That’s where being a showman – a master of ceremonies, if you will – comes in. A showman energises the client to actually act upon the recommendations, the final component of Rumelt’s construct.

So it makes sense that we’d need to bring in some drama, emotion, and excitement. A bit of theatre. Think about the overall experience. It’s not about pushing the client to agree with you. It’s that the client really needs you to make a compelling case for change. So you must apply your influence to envision, activate belief, and – ultimately – persuade them to choose what’s best for them and their business. This is what being a showman is all about, and why it’s needed in any great strategist.

Aligning Stars and Moving Mountains

Each of these roles – shaman, sherpa, and showman – is absolutely necessary if we’re going to move our clients onto bigger and better things. For instance, being a sherpa and a shaman may not be enough to motivate them to tackle a bold new initiative. Or acting as both shaman and showman may solve an immediate issue, but we’d be unable to take them to the next level. The trick is in how to bring all three together, in the correct balance, at just the right time. Personally, that’s still a work in progress.

“Focus on the people side of the equation. It’s the ‘customer experience’ element that cannot be ignored.”

Remember, no matter how smart you are, or how analytical you are, you’re trying to get people to change. This 3S framework helps you focus on the people side of the equation – the ‘customer experience’ element that cannot be ignored. Not just the ‘soft side.’ But the effective side. Because ultimately people are the ones who make decisions. And, hopefully, move mountains.

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