Turning the tables – part 1

In this blog, we talk a lot about how those in functional roles can become strategic advisers to their senior leaders. But today, I want to take a different perspective: what does it take to become a strategic adviser to me?

Specifically, I want to talk about how external agencies, consulting firms, or PR professionals can raise their game and fundamentally transform how they deal with clients like me. If you work in an agency or consulting firm, this blog is for you.

We’re going to turn the tables and discuss the role of external strategic advisers, and what you can do to become one.

When you start your career, in a junior role, most of what you will be doing is
at the behest of others. You are in effect, a waiter, delivering what others ask – be they clients or more senior colleagues. You develop and grow your expertise and reputation in a particular field and, as you get promoted and move through the ranks, you become an expert in a particular area.

But then something happens. You get promoted to an Account Manager or Account Director role. Congratulations!  Your role has completely changed, and you don’t even know it.

Suddenly you find yourself directing others, leading a team, negotiating with your clients, writing proposals, attending pitches, advising clients and working with other account directors to balance client needs, the firm’s needs, and your team’s own professional development.

And you have to leave all those fun, technical expert tasks behind. Because the more you allow yourself to be drawn back down to them, the less value you will add to me, Carmen Spinoza, your most important client.

So, what does it take to make the transition? In my experience, there are two sets of changes required: one internal, one external. This week I’m going to talk about internal. Stay tuned next week for the external ones.

Internal motivations

I’ve been speaking to a couple of my preferred external advisers and they all tell the same story: they started off being motivated by one type of work but now have to find their motivation elsewhere. After their initial graduate waiter jobs, many of them moved to back-office doing technical work, business analysis, or research. They were the chefs of the advisory world: producing great work but behind the scenes. And they loved it.

But just as some of the most famous Michelin chefs don’t do much actual cooking any more (they appear on TV, open branded restaurant chains, write books, etc.), my favourite advisers don’t do the detail work themselves. They have found another motivator: whether it is sales, business development, presenting, influencing, or just working with their clients. To continue my restaurant analogy, you need to become a maître d’: dedicated to marshalling a group of experts to create a great experience for me, your customer.

And so my advice to you is this: if you want to be my strategic adviser, be sure to find the right motivation. Otherwise, you risk either drawing yourself back into chef or waiter work; or you will lead an unfulfilled consulting life.

What do you think? What changes have you had to make as you develop your career in professional services? How have you changed your motivations?

Stay tuned for next week when we’ll be discussing external changes.

For more information on this topic, or to find to more about the brand new “external consultant” version of Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders, please get in touch.

If you are intrigued by the restaurant metaphor, explore how a being an adviser is like working at a restaurant.

What would Carmen do?

Guest post and feature photograph by Sharon Hunter.

What would Carmen do? Well, that depends on your point of view.

Carmen Spinoza profile card
Follow Carmen

Hi, my name is Sharon and I’m addicted to Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders. It has been seven days since I last played the game…

Seriously, I was hooked the first time I met Carmen Spinoza at an IABC conference in 2017 – so when back-to-back workshops in Toronto and Montréal cropped up last week, I jumped on a plane to explore how the experience had evolved in the last two years.

The Toronto workshop Sept. 19 was organized by Contact Monkey, and the Montréal event Sept. 20 by the local IABC chapter. Each attracted a diverse mix of professionals and students from across PR, marketing and communications, spurring interesting discussion. I enjoyed reconnecting with a few @IABCToronto members, which sparked a little friendly competition between the cities.

The compelling thing about this game is the immersive learning environment it provides. As participants, we step into the fictional world of Globocorp and its cast of executive team characters. Working in teams, our role is to guide Carmen Spinoza, Globocorp’s Director of Communications, to navigate a tricky landscape as a newly appointed member of the executive team. To advance her career successfully, she must stretch beyond her comfort zone as a strategic adviser to the C-suite to become one of its business leaders. She must also step back to reflect on the best course of action within challenging scenarios, while considering the different perspectives of the other characters when making choices that affect them.

As communicators, we can all identify with Carmen’s challenges. As her advisers in this engaging business simulation, we are challenged to question our own habits: to pause before falling into conditioned behaviours, to consider different points of view and perspectives before offering solutions, to rise above our perceived rank to make strategic contributions that impact business results and, ultimately, demonstrate our worth to the organizations we serve.

The richness of this learning experience is reaped from the diversity within the room. Teams with participants representing all stages of the career journey must reach consensus on the advice they give Carmen to move forward. This sparks dynamic debate and evokes various degrees of emotional intelligence – much like in the corporate world.

To explore our own behaviours and preferences, Stephen Welch took us through exercises on the types of advisers. He also explored different influencing styles to help us identify our own recipes for success. Tip: If you can’t admit you’ve been Yannis the Yelper at the wrong time – you’ve got a long way to go on this journey!

What I love most about Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders is how adaptable it is. Countless simulations can be played within the Globocorp universe, and not just for communications scenarios. The game can be tailored to suit a variety of learning outcomes for teams across business functions. We played the role of a communications leader, but variations for other business functions like HR exist for those who want to advance from technical expert to strategic adviser.

So, here’s my final tip: Don’t wait for a public event to try your luck at this strategic thinking game. Get in touch and we can bring it home to you. I think that’s what Carmen would do.

The sky’s the limit!

Sharon Hunter, SCMP is a past chair of IABC international executive board, former IABC/ Montréal chapter president, independent consultant and a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders facilitator in Canada.

Strategic advisers: five perspectives.

In our Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders events, one of our goals is to combine fun with practical tools to help participants reflect on their personal advisory style and think what it means for their own behaviour, and how they work with others.

One of the most popular tools we have helps people think about what type of adviser they are. In fact, being a ‘strategic adviser’ comes in five different flavours.

So what are the five? And which one are you?

Imagine you are walking into an expensive restaurant for a date with the one you love. You will encounter several different people — all experts in their own field, and all ready to give you advice on how to have the best possible experience. But they will all do it in different ways.

Nvospersfnls_Cards1 copyIn fact, maybe your first adviser is one you encounter before you get to the restaurant. You meet a previous customer (or read an internet review): “Aah, you’re going to ‘Augustus’ for dinner! Wow! You must totally have the ‘Barcelona Chop’. It’s their speciality. Divine. And for dessert? There is only one choice. Of course you need to order the ‘Caramel Salée With Meringue’. It’s to die for.” This adviser’s heart is in the right place, and they generally believe that those choices are the best for you. But they have jumped to solution and ‘yelped’ it out before even having a detailed discussion. This is a great approach in a crisis: ‘just tell me what to do’. Yelping out the solution immediately they can save time and make your life easier. But the challenge for this type of adviser — the yelper — is that jumping straight to solution or action sometimes works but is not always the best approach.

Nvospersfnls-02As you enter the restaurant, you will meet your next adviser: the maître d’. Let’s call her Martha. Her main job is to ensure you have a good experience, and to marshal a team of specialists to meet your specific needs. Martha is supportive, helpful and attentive. She knows her stuff but doesn’t parade her knowledge. At times, she will bring in experts to enhance your experience; at other times she will develop a relationship with you to understand your needs in more detail. If you are a looking for a quick transaction, go to a different restaurant. Martha will ensure you feel better after leaving; and will place your needs above her own. As you share a taxi home with your loved one, you probably won’t even remember her name: but she’s the one who made it all happen.

Nvospersfnls-05After Martha shows you to your table, you’ll meet your waiter, William. This is the third adviser archetype. His job is transactional. His job is to give you a menu of options and then write down what you say. He’ll deliver whatever you ask. Maybe there will be a little conversation about options, but essentially the waiter’s job is to deliver. Sometimes as an adviser, that is what you need to do. A senior leader needs something and you need to deliver. There is a time and a place for this approach. But doing it too often is career-limiting.

Nvospersfnls-08As you choose your meal, you’ll maybe want some wine. Enter Salma, your sommelier. As your adviser, her job is to have a conversation to understand your needs, the context (the meal you have already chosen; your budget; your tastes) and then make a recommendation. At the beginning of your conversation, she doesn’t know your needs, your context, and there is no clear solution from her list of hundreds of options. If it was a crisis and you needed immediate wine, then the yelper is the adviser for you. But the sommelier will explore the issues, make recommendations and guide you towards a good outcome.

Nvospersfnls-07Your final archetype is Christiane, the chef. She’s the super expert — and has the Michelin stars, certificates and qualifications to prove it. In her hands, the mundane becomes dynamic. Her technical expertise is second to none and if you need an expert to solve your problems she’s the one for you. Like some chefs, she can be hard to handle. Unlike the maître d’, she doesn’t need interpersonal skills. In fact, you probably won’t even meet her. But her solution will be the thing that you rave about later. As an adviser, she’s the expert and the one that will go away and build a solution to meet your needs.

This typology may be a bit of fun, but it comes in useful when diagnosing business partnering relationships. One of the big challenges in consulting or business partner relationships is that the ‘buyer’ and the ‘seller’ can sometimes have different ideas of why the partnership exists.

Successful business partners will make sure there is an alignment between three components of the relationship:

  1. What does the buyer want? Sometimes, actually, it is a waiter problem, pure and simple. Just do it. Going in with a sommelier approach is just going to annoy people.
  2. What is the job? This might be a job description, an RFP or just an email request from one of your colleagues. You need to identify what type of response is needed.
  3. Finally, as a person, where do you get your energy? Plenty of people ask me, “how do I become a maître d’?” but actually when I quiz them in detail it is apparent they are most happy being a chef.

The trick to successful business partner relationships is ensuring an alignment between what the customer wants, the job requirement and where you get your energy.

And this applies not just to those in marketing or PR but also to professionals in other fields such as HR, Legal, IT etc. In fact, we regularly sit down with the other functional leaders in my business where we explore these issues and think about what that means. (Perhaps the same is true in your organization – how often do you sit down with your peers from other functions and think about what your organization really needs from its functional experts?)

If you would like to hear more about this methodology and how to move from one archetype to another, come to one of our workshops or get in touch directly.

Perfectly you

Serena William’s comeback helps Carmen Spinoza rethink the one thing that makes strategic advisers indispensable.

Last Sunday, in the Qantas business class lounge in Singapore, I spotted the cover of Time Magazine. It read “Perfectly Serena” and had a picture of the most famous working mum of the moment. Unsurprisingly, because I think of you often, my mind turned to my closest strategic advisers. You know who you are, you have helped me harness my professional reputation while choosing what was best for Globocorp: paths that are sometimes — but not always — mutually exclusive.


Serena’s path, since her return from maternity leave, has been both bumpy and stellar. On the court, she’s had some losses and has yet to return to her flawless self. But off the court, you cannot find a better example of owning her story and making an asset of her flaws. Her patchiness makes her authentic, her ups and downs anointed her as the comeback queen, the poster girl for working mums and second chances. 

As I kept reflecting on her story, it made me think about yours. There is one thing that distinguishes the good advisers from the absolutely indispensable ones: authenticity. There is a certain wisdom and gravitas that come with owning your weaknesses and sharing how you overcome them, however imperfectly, whatever your gender or circumstances. 

Serena Williams, in every game and every business move, is selling a 21st century commodity that is so hard to grasp and yet impossible to resist: human reality. Don’t misread me, we still have to wear our work personas. But they are no longer wearing the 1980s power suits or playing unbreakable alpha heroes. It is much more complex than that. Today, we must ace this balancing act: be professional, deliver, be human, be authentic, fit in and stand out. This is the paradox I face as I travel the world and guide my company’s corporate affairs. 

So let me finish with a challenge to you. Be like Serena and bring some personality to the court or your team, leave the personal drama at the door. Inspire me with your humanity but try not to drop any balls while you’re at it. How? I have no immediate answers. However, I think I know where the next Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders scenario might be. If you want to play or, even better, help me develop it, let’s connect on twitter @CarmenSpinoza11.

What happens when the lemonade turns to brine?

All of us who have been to business school know the classic case of the lemonade stand. But what happens when your lemonade sours – or becomes brine?

My friend Josie Bartlet had a dilemma recently and her challenge raised some critical issues about being a strategic adviser. It’s a dilemma we all sometimes face as strategic advisers. Stick or twist? Imagine this….

Put yourself in Josie’s shoes….

Imagine you are a senior adviser to your leader. You have clear divisional responsibilities. Your team supports you to deliver on a clear agenda. You think you know what is right.

Last week, you attended an away day at your boss’s country house. She gets paid the big bucks and so recently bought a Tudor villa in South East England. It’s full of draughts but that’s by-the-by. Your company faces a serious strategic dilemma for which there are no good answers.

Activist investors – such as ‘Go Mergers’ Capital – want a new plan, but getting top team alignment around the plan is proving difficult. Hence the top team retreat.

After a long, fraught, day, you finally come to an agreement on the future direction of your organization. Despite lots of opposition. Some leaders were happy with your strategic alliances, others want a more stand-alone strategy. But finally, the team agreed on an compromise approach. Everyone has nodded their heads in acquiescence. Or did they?

Your (Josie’s) challenge is this:

You are part of a management team and a key adviser to the leader, but you disagree fundamentally with the outcome of the team away day.

What would Josie do? What would you do? Which of these three is the ‘right’ answer?

Option A

Although you don’t agree, you have a collective responsibility as a member of the top team. You are not convinced it is the best outcome – but for the same of commercial interest and corporate harmony – you decide to toe the line. When it comes to strategic alliances with overseas partners, you think you could get a better agreement but decide to play for time. Besides your end of year bonus will be good.

Option B

The money may be good but you decide that your reputation would be best served by leaving. You have lots of allies in the market – headhunters have tipped you for a more senior role – so now is the time to go. You’ve been loyal for long enough but this is the final straw – when the CEO makes a decision you fundamentally disagree with you know that you can’t swallow your pride any longer. It is time to make a play for a new job and resign with panache.

Option C

The money is still good. But this time you feel uncomfortable taking it now that the new strategic direction has been announced. You’ve made your career on working to the IABC Global Standard – Ethics, Consistency… etc – and now the collective decision requires you to go against everything you stand for. You want to please the CEO (who is powerful but thin-skinned), but on the other hand that means being false to yourself.

You have 10 minutes to decide. Your time starts now….

Although the dilemma is not often put in such stark terms, we are often faced with the challenge of what to do when we don’t like a corporate decision. Or are forced to argue on behalf of something we don’t agree with.

Lemons - Creative Commons image with thanks to Liz West https://flic.kr/p/ck62LC
Lemons – (CC BY) – Liz West

As a strategic adviser, the challenge is to which battles we want to fight.

  • Which battles are worth winning?
  • When can we win?
  • When can we tactically lose?

And when do we want to make a stand for what we believe in, and metaphorically die in a ditch if necessary.

To return to Josie. As it happens she is one of my friends, so I can tell you that she would never choose the politically expedient option B. Option B is a good way of getting a short-term win and a long-term loss.

Option A is acceptable – she has a strong corporate responsibility and loyalty. We’ve probably all made a choice like this in our career.

I know I have.

But the really brave choice is, in my opinion, C.

The bravery, though, is not in choosing option C, but in avoiding the temptation of dressing it up as option B. In some walks of life there are a lot of “B” players who choose the “B” option but pretend it is choice C. This happens so often that when there is really a “C” resignation, some people are often cynical and think it is really a “B”. This is more common in some sectors than others.

What would you choose? Feel free to comment below.