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The Role of the Strategist: Five Archetypes


Tue Dec 30 2014

The Role of the Strategist: Five Archetypes

Over the years, the role of the corporate strategist has increased in scope and complexity beyond simple annual planning. McKinsey recently surveyed nearly 350 senior strategists, representing 25 industries from all parts of the globe, to understand the extraordinary diversity of responsibilities. 

Several important facets of the strategist’s role emerged from the research, such as reallocating corporate resources, building strategic capabilities at key places in the organization, identifying business-development opportunities, and generating proprietary insights on the basis of external forces at work and long-term market trends. A number of these roles are more appropriate for some strategists and organizations than for others. But the core notion of stretching and choosing is relevant for all. 


McKinsey’s research uncovered that each of the strategists roles or responsibilities revolved around one of three core areas:

  • generating insights

  • enacting and enabling strategic decisions

  • owning specific value levers. 

More important, the analysis yielded five archetypes in which the strategist’s role becomes more than the sum of its parts. McKinsey analysts Michael Birshan, Emma Gibbs, and Kurt Strovink, report on these findings in the article, "Rethinking the Role of the Strategist."

  • Architect. These strategists, 40 percent of the executives McKinsey surveyed, make the most of their talent for “using fact-based analysis to spot industry shifts and to understand their own companies’ sources of competitive advantage as a foundation for clear, differentiated strategies.” The authors explain that organic growth and driving business performance is a core concern of the architect role. “By monitoring competitors, these strategists can challenge their own organizations to set ambitious targets and reach them,” the article states.  

  • Mobilizer. An additional 20 percent of CSOs surveyed by McKinsey fall into a mobilizer role. According to the analysis, these leaders are focused on “developing the strategic muscle of their companies, building capabilities, and delivering special projects.” In addition, chief strategists in this model focus on ensuring that strategy meetings are truly strategic. The authors describe how leaders in this role “ask the right questions, scrutinize critical assumptions, and ensure that their companies are learning organizations.”  

  • Visionary. Only 14 percent of strategists in the McKinsey study fall into the visionary role. Not surprising, a key strength of visionaries (is trend forecasting, which at its simplest involves scanning the landscape for trends and shocks that may create opportunities or risks for the business. McKinsey found that “the best visionaries are using the advent of big data to create unique perspectives on where the next growth pocket will come from and, specifically, on what will be needed to serve it.”  

  • Surveyor. Similar to visionaries, surveyors (also 14 percent of strategists in the McKinsey study) spot trends but focus more on long-range topics that have the potential to change the way an industry operates. For example, surveyors look for “potential disruptions and quickly advise their businesses on the impact and opportunity such shifts could produce.” According to the article, “these are the people with their eyes on the furthest horizon.”  

  • Fund manager. Finally, there are the fund managers, who accounted for 12 percent of strategists in the McKinsey study. These leaders emphasize reallocating resources and optimizing the corporate portfolio of their businesses. “Focusing on performance, they are dynamic in their approach, thus encouraging their organizations to enter and exit businesses and to nurture and prune their existing portfolios,” state the authors.  

The complexity of today’s strategic landscape places a premium on good strategy—and just as crafting strategy requires tough choices, so does shaping the role of the strategist. The good news, according to McKinsey’s research, is that "strategists have a range of powerful options for adding value to their organizations."

Read more insights from the study in the full article, "Rethinking the Role of the Strategist."

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