7 Steps to Clarity in Strategic Leadership

By Matthew

· 10 min

The hardest job.

So, you’ve become your agency’s Head of Strategy, or Head of Planning, or Head of Innovation, or Chief Strategy Officer…or whatever you call it where you are. 


Bad news. This is going to be tough.

In the world of agencies, this is a really important management role that’s frequently as easy to pin down as nailing jelly to a wall. One which gives you huge responsibility for agency product, culture, growth and reputation – but often with invisible constraints that only emerge over the time.

There’s also the chance that this is the first important team leadership experience of your life.

And here’s the kicker. Not only are you most likely quite under-exposed to team leadership, but it’s also one of the most difficult agency management jobs there is.

(At this point, no doubt, the client leaders and the operational leaders and the finance leaders and the general managers may inhale sharply. Perhaps it doesn’t look very difficult…mainly Powerpoint and pitching. Well…I’ve tried a few management roles…and I thoroughly recommend that you don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.)

Good days and bad days.

On a good day, leading a strategy team, and an agency’s strategic product, can be golden. 

Usually, those days are pitch days, or awards ceremonies, or sometimes the culmination of annual or major campaign planning. But sometimes they are just quiet moments of breakthrough. Moments where you see fresh talent gather steam and take the lead. Momentswhere you see people’s range of ambition in their work expanding. 

But there are a lot of other days too.

Days when your to-do list gets longer at a higher speed than you can write it down, let alone get it done.

Days when your best, most carefully engineered work is eviscerated on the very flimsiest of subjective pretexts.

Days when you have to tell the superstar in your team that they can’t have a £3k pay rise, and they tell you they’ve been offered a £30k pay rise to work at a tech giant.

And many days when your team’s psychological needs seem so esoteric that not only are you struggling to solve them – you are struggling to understand what they are.

7 Steps to Clarity

Recently I’ve been doing quite a few advisory roles to new or incoming strategic leaders, sometimes at their own instigation, often at the instigation of their CEOs. And the myriad complexities of the role have come flooding back to me from many years of facing into them.

The challenges are unique in every place, and clarity can be hard to find.

But in the interests of the general health of a discipline that has made my livelihood, here are seven steps to sanity.

1. Know your own business

You would (I hope) never provide strategic advice to a business without pretty thoroughly understanding how what markets they play in, what reputation they need to build, how they make money, how they operate, where the major costs are, and where their major constraints and risks are to be found.

But the truth is that it’s pretty easy to get to this role without knowing the same about your own business. 

Obviously that places you at a massive disadvantage. Not only does it make it harder for you to help the business to make good strategic decisions, or to focus your team and your time in the right places.

It also plays into the invisible stereotypes around your role. These will become clearer over time, but bear in mind that some of the commercial people and craftspeople you work with will classify you and your tribe as ‘clever’. This is not the compliment you might think it is, but a lateral articulation of your suspected lack of common sense.

You have to know the numbers. The growth targets, and how they break down. The costs, and where they need to be managed. The margins. And of course, how what you do contributes to it. If you are trying to do this job, and you don’t have a clear point of view on this stuff, get to know it ASAP.

2. Anchor in the outside world

At the same time, there’s no point trying to be an alternative CFO. In an industry with quite a lot of mobility, I’ve not yet seen a strategist become a CFO. You have to bring contextual awareness into the business to create value; awareness of the audiences, of categories, of the economy, emerging trends.

This means constantly looking outside. And whilst it’s quite likely as a strategist that this comes naturally in your areas of interest, over time you are going to need to stretch that range of interest into things with the broadest possible application.

So not just nascent cultural trends, but inflation, growth forecasts, demographic changes, supply chain pressures, skills gaps, technology proliferation, diversity and inclusion issues. 

It’s largely your job to describe the scenario on which strategy is developed. To provide a reliable, grounded north star when the path gets confusing. Keep looking outside.

3. Physician, heal thyself

I’ve rarely met a strategist who had a good strategy for themselves. Excellence in strategic disciplines tends to come with a degree of introversion, but also with a degree of reluctance to focus with confidence on setting your own path.

The truth is (sorry) that a strategic leader is a brand, or at least a sub-brand, or an asset, that’s of a reasonable level of value both internally and externally. Like any brand, it needs some distinctive attributes – which requires you to find a credible overlap between what you believe, and what you are good at, and what creates a useful halo for you and for your team.

And beyond that, your personal brand needs a well thought-through communications plan to grow its mental availability and resonance. This means to you need to spend time and energy building external industry networks, and profile.

You’ll probably feel like this is self-indulgent, and perhaps the least important thing to do as a wave of pitches and client retentions hit you, but it’s an essential rhythm to get into to be the greatest asset you can be for your agency.

4. Make space for your team

No-one in any job can succeed without a great team behind them. In the case of a strategic team, you need to pack a lot of diverse skills within a small group – and give them their head.

It’s got to be pretty much an all-star team, which means retaining your existing stars, cultivating externally a group of people who you’d like to join, and looking to bring in diverse or provocative voices (either full time, or as occasional/independent allies). And inevitably, it also means not being afraid to make some changes to the existing line-up if it feels like it’s holding you back. This is one of the most efficient and effective ways you can spend your time.

But it’s not just about having the talent, it’s about being brave and intentional about how you use them. Most likely, you have your new job because you were a salient talent or because people think you can be. But there’s no chance of you succeeding if those behind you don’t also have the hunger and the opportunity to take centre-stage, both in craft and in leadership, when its needed.

In fact, start planning your succession from day one.

5. Tell the story of the work

A fundamental contribution of an agency strategic leader is to elevate the work. To make it better, more consistent, more celebrated, more diverse, and more impressive. The love of great work is probably one of the things that got you here, so don’t lost it.

But remember that more and more, your job won’t be to do the work. It might be to sell it, to make it happen, which can be a great feeling. But much more often, your relationship with the work will be much more about using it to tell stories – which create cultural unity, to build reputation, to inspire other good work, to win new opportunities.

This is a practice, like anything, and it needs constant repetition – exposing the work, understanding it, deconstructing it, repackaging it, and furiously crediting it to the people who made it happen. This is by far the quickest route to awards wins, to great chemistry meetings, to cultural confidence, and to more great work.

6. Create coherence

We’ve got to this point without really talking about creating strategy work. But you’ll most likely still be the go-to person in a clinch for the best strategic work, whether that’s a pitch, or a top brief, or an agency plan. Stay sharp!

But the kind of strategic work that you do will cover ever more different disciplines and skillsets. Your key role is still to create brilliant insight and synthesis that inspires and makes choices. But the wider your canvas, the more imperative there is to be effective at listening to multiple specialist points of view; to absorb them into your thinking, and to support their needs in the structure of your thinking. This means building bridges into the things you understand less – perhaps production, or media trading, or sustainability, or regulatory governance. A strategy that ties together these elements, based on genuine expertise, is exponentially more valuable.

And above all, to unify these streams of effort you’ll need to become more and more concise. A large team, and a comprehensive plan, rest on simple headline concepts that connect emotionally, and elegant structures that organise complexity. It’s a different flavour of thinking, and if you can do it brilliantly, it’s an essential service you provide to everyone you work with.

7. Make space for yourself

So, if these thoughts have resonated, they will have added a few items to your already burgeoning list. But I want to close by suggesting that the most important thing you need to do is to look after yourself, and your own clarity of thought.

This is a role in which a lot is drawn from you. You have a lot of very demanding stakeholders, who expect you to be able to reach into your mental reservoirs at the drop of a hat and draw out fresh ideas, and a coherent course of action.

This is impossible if you don’t keep filling up the reservoirs.

This is about giving space to what gives you mental energy. This could be any number of things for you as an individual – exercise, reading, creating, fierce debate, low-pressure time with your peers and your team – but you need to regularly put this at the top of your list.

And to an extent everything above is about enabling this one key principle. To create the space to think, and act with clarity, you need to prioritise:

  • credibility with your peers
  • understanding of the world
  • clarity on your role and style
  • self-sufficiency and impact from your team
  • mastery and celebration of the agency’s work
  • skill at coherent synthesis

And as with any strategy, there will be things to deprioritise. Many of them will involve physical and virtual meeting time. Make a list if things not to do, and stick to it.

If you’re grappling with life as a strategic leader, or want to support a key member of your team, Hook Strategy can help. Get in touch!

Hook Strategy helps organisations to move forwards with shared strategic clarity. If you are an organisation seeking unified thinking, get in touch at or by calling +44 (0)7780 481717.

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