Explore A Career In Strategy & Planning with Leah Burnett, Former Senior Director Of Strategy @Viacom
Leah Burnett, Former Senior Director for Strategy & Planning @Viacom, shares her thoughts on what's involved in working in a Strategy function at a large company. Prior to Viacom, Leah has worked in consulting at BCG and Finance at UBS and Citigroup.
Leah has a BS in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and MBA from The Wharton School.
Check out the podcast below to listen to our full discussion.
Some of the areas that Leah touches upon in this episode include:
1. Why Leah moved from finance to consulting to strategy
2. Examples of projects you might work in a Strategy team
3. Stages in a typical Strategy project
4. Sample team scructures
5. What to look for in a Strategy team
6. Interesting and Challenging aspects of the job
7. What Leah does not like as much about working in strategy
8. Skills needed to do well in Strategy
9. Typical background found in strategy teams
10. Recommended resources
Thank you for listening!!
Detailed notes from the discussion:
Can you walk us through your career path, and what was your thought process as you moved through your career?
I started out in financial services, specifically in sales and trading. And I had a focus on derivatives and structured products trading. That part of my career lasted for about seven years and was split between Citigroup and UBS. But I was actually there during the credit crisis around 2007. Towards the end of that, six, seven year period, I decided that I needed to broaden my skill set in case there was some other downturn in the market and made the decision to go to b school, but in the process of making the decision to go to business school, the question I needed to answer was, what do I want to glean from that experience? And how do I want to segue after my two years are up.
So, my main goal was to try to move into a strategy role. And there are different ways you can get into strategy through, say, rotational programs at large companies, management consulting, you could work in the advisory arm of a PE firm as well. But I decided that I wanted to get the traditional experience at a management consulting firm and went into BCG for a couple of years. And then after that experience, I made the decision for more personal reasons to move into in-house strategy at Viacom, for their Latin American arm. Again, very different type of experience versus a management consulting job.
I'll quickly say the personal reasons were more about just there was less travel that was required in the in- house position. And then secondly, I wanted to really get more operational experience. When you're a management consultant, you tend to be brought into businesses, it’s more of a project based, isolated role. But I was very curious, after working with several clients over the two years at BCG to really try to gain a skill set on the operational side.
You mentioned that consulting is one way to get into strategy. You could have gone through a rotation program as an example, or some other way too. If someone is contemplating taking one of those paths, is there a framework that you can suggest for them to think through which path to pick?
Sure, I would say that, again, it's a very personal decision, I believe that each route does have a few pros and a few cons. I would say, you need to think about the time period which you're willing to spend building up certain skill sets. So if your goal is to get to a general manager position, like in a consumer product company, then maybe it's a good idea for you to go into one of the rotational programs. And I would just say that the timeline for really moving up the ranks, it tends to be a little bit longer. So the rotational programs do accelerate most candidates from my understanding to senior positions, but it's a bit of a longer road than, I believe the other routes that I mentioned, but also the exit opportunities are obviously very different across the three paths.
So for the other two routes management consulting and say working in the advisory arm of a PE firm. That's more difficult to segue maybe into a GM position if you wanted to. So the exit opportunities are there depending on the level of seniority, but even that I think those two routes really do focus more on, we need to deliver on results very quickly. There's a client that we need to deliver results for, just to prove, you know, our ROI is worthwhile. And I would say that the lifestyles are incredibly different, so much more fast paced for a management consultant and anyone working in PE.
I would say that actually, with the last route, doing advisory within PE, someone coming out of business school, or someone who's not a very seasoned professional within a particular industry, or functional expertise, it's very hard to find those opportunities within PE. But I think those opportunities are possible, but you would just expect that there will be fewer and farther between than the first two routes that I mentioned.
Can you describe at a high level - what does someone in strategy and planning at a large company do?
Okay, I will first say that this role does exist at a lot of different companies. I believe that typically you find two different flavors. One is you sit within an overarching strategy team. And by that, I mean, whatever type of company, there are usually multiple functions. So it can be sales, marketing, And so you sometimes have a team that sits across all of them. And where you have particular business lines within sales, strategy sits on top of them. Now, the other flavor of the strategy role is somebody who actually sits within one of those business units. And just to clarify, when I was at Viacom, my role was actually a business line strategy person, but I worked incredibly closely with the overarching strategy team that sat on top of all of our business lines.
Okay, depending on how big the company is, most likely, they'll have multiple business units slash business lines. And so you could be working as part of the central sort of company wide strategy team, or you might be more focused on a particular business line and sitting within that unit.
Yes, some companies have one or the other, or both. So that said, I would say with the overarching strategy position, your day to day or your responsibilities is really working on longer term projects that span multiple business units or functions, which makes sense because obviously, you have more purview across different business units. And you can help optimize to move all those groups in the right direction based on your observations. And with the business line strategy person, I would say, they also have to be good at being a generalist from a functional perspective, like the the larger strategy team, but the business unit strategy person, I would say, would have to focus on strategic initiatives that help drive the day to day a bit more.
So an example I can give you is when I was working with a sales team, the overarching strategy team would not necessarily be worried about data management that would be helpful for the sales team to use in order to optimize how they're doing in the field. But that would be more in my purview. Because again, that's more of a day to day concern.
For the other type of strategy person, let's say that there needs to be a huge investment made across the entire region. So we were in Latin America, for instance. And as you can imagine, we were focused on content creation as well as distributing that content, and it requires obviously content creators, it requires technology to be involved, sales people to be involved. So, the overarching strategy team might come in and say, Okay, this is how we envision the US needing to really interact with the team to extract the type of information that we think is pertinent to making this final decision. And they'll structure those recommendations and present it to senior management. Now, usually, when they're presenting these types of major decisions, they're working very closely with the business unit strategy, people as well to make sure that everyone's aligned, and then they essentially helped move everyone as a whole together in the same direction.
Generally, have you seen these roles to be more owners of something or more influencers? And by that, what I mean is, let's say you come up with some recommendations for how you can improve the way you're collecting data, which will then in turn, help sales. Do you then have to go through a process of influencing someone within the sales org? Let's say someone in sales ops, who is actually implementing those recommendations?
Funny enough, I would say, when you're in a business line, you're most likely helping to execute, versus, say, an overarching strategy person would be less likely to touch execution. And you're also a decision maker. So when those huge or large cross functional initiatives are pushed by the overarching strategy team, you're usually the person who is at the forefront, helping to be the voice for the team, from a strategic perspective, what you can or can't do, what will be optimal for not just that team, but for everyone. Now, there are situations where there could be an idea generated within the business line, where maybe the overarching team didn't think about it. And you take it to them, and you need to influence them. But you also need to maybe sometimes build your case before you even go to anybody's say check in with other business units. Because again, as I mentioned, this particular business is a big pipeline.
Can you give a high level overview of the stages in a typical project, what happens from beginning to end?
Sure, I kind of chuckle because I don't know if there is a typical project, but I would say that there are common threads across most projects. So I would say you know, the, the variety of projects that you could be touching in your role could vary depending on how the teams are set up. Quite often strategy teams have a close tie with their business development teams. It can mean finding new opportunities. So that's a sales perspective, or m&a opportunities. And so you sometimes have the opportunity to work on acquisition targets. And then there are just a whole host of other types of projects that you could be working on.
That said, some of the common threads that I think you see are - 1. You start a project quite often with senior management, presenting a problem that they're facing. So it could be maybe someone who sits on top of a business line. I worked quite often with the C suite for Latin America. As I mentioned before, it could be the strategy people that are saying, hey, we're seeing some problems we need to address because they can become systematic, then I would say, with strategy, you are often defining the scope of the problem. One of the problems that a lot of businesses face, as I've seen in my management consulting experience, is that a lot of problems could span for miles, quite often, businesses can really not make progress on fixing the problem, because they feel that it's just too much to really digest. So strategy has to be very good at saying, Hey, this is really where the problem ends. Or this is the most reasonable point in which the business has the capacity to start resolving the most critical parts of the problem.
I would say next you have the structuring of really what the solution could look like and how you're going to go about addressing those issues. You don't just go around and just ask a billion questions. We ask what are the key questions that we really need to get answers to with different business units to get to the right recommendations, and then there's definitely some delegation involved. So sometimes, when it comes to, you know, doing certain analysis, you may do it yourself as a strategy person, or you may have to delegate to the business units themselves. And then quite often, what happens is you end up in a little bit of an iteration loop for how long maybe it could be weeks, usually not months, but you're usually sitting there coming up with recommendations that you try to vet to make sure that what you're presenting is actually operationally viable.
Then you're speaking to different business representatives, to make sure that they're on board, because obviously, there are also different incentive structures across teams, based on their function based on again, you know, just other aspects of the business political interaction. And quite often you are taking all that information. And very carefully, strategically also, communicating that with slides, documentation that is, you know, executive friendly, and informally, again, presenting to the business to make sure there is alignment, because one of the biggest problems that a company can face is when there's, again, these large initiatives, and you don't want to have somebody at the last second say, Hey, I don't actually agree with this point of view. And then finally, after a few iterations of going around, can hopefully come to a solution that everyone agrees upon, and then work on executing.
Are teams structured in a similar way to consulting teams?
I would say, for the most part, yes. Where you have someone who serves a say, like, what the equivalent of an Asia manager slash project leader, you always have your senior people that equate to principal slash partners. And they're usually working on ideation, trying to make sure that they're surfacing problems that are really going to move the needle in terms of how much money is the business making or losing on problems they have or have not addressed? And then you have your equivalent of analysts that are working probably more on the heavy lifting, the day to day analysis and slides etc. Now, they're quite often depending on how familiar a company or industry is, with a strategy function.
I would say sometimes that structure that I just described to you gets condensed in that you may actually find some teams to be incredibly lean. So what I mean by that is, especially in traditional media, I believe that the strategy function is definitely a new role. You have people in the business who never worked with the strategy person until maybe the last five years. And that's a role where you really do have to convince the business that even though the team is not directly tied to sales, that they're proving that they're helping to drive change that is important across the business.
How is someone in the strategy function assessed?
And that's a tricky question, because it really, really depends on the team and on the company itself.
So I think regardless of function, whether strategy or sales, if you're running a team, usually there's going to be a bigger chunk of your incentive that's tied to the business - How's the business doing as a whole? If you're the head strategy person, how did the sales teams perform? You know, how much more business did they do? And, they come up sometimes with these crazy formulas to say, okay, the strategy person should make X percent of what that team did, because obviously, the strategy person is supporting that revenue generating business line. So in that sense, it seems more like a commission structure.
But then, again, going back to seniority, as you go down the ranks in terms of like, go more junior, then you move, I think, farther away from the convention, commission slash, you know, you need to hit a certain target in the business personally, or by business line, and maybe based more on salary. But that said, I've also seen structures where to incentivize all the teams to work together as a whole, you'll have, say, a group or say, regional budget that you need to hit.
Since there are so many moving parts - what makes a good strategy role? And how do you figure that out?
If there is a strategy team that already exists, try to speak with people who are on the team, and talk to them about the types of projects that they do. And also, very similar to the question you asked me about, well, how much can they influence decisions is incredibly important, because you don't want to be on a team where you end up doing a lot of work. And it could be a lot of good work, but because maybe senior management has not, quote unquote, given their blessing on the strategy team, you know, being able to make recommendations or to change the direction of a certain business unit. Quite often, you may find that at the end of the day, you may have a business line that always has more clout than the strategy team. So a lot of those great recommendations may go in the trash.
Which you may wonder, okay, well, then why is there a strategy team, but it does happen, I've heard of it happening. I would say that, but on the other hand, you could have a situation where the strategy team may end up doing too much of the day to day that really should live with the business unit. Because in some roles, the strategy teams are kind of treated as secondary and I told you that quite often because of maybe capacity constraints or corporate culture, the strategic piece of what may be expected to live within a business line just can't naturally. So then you bring in a strategy team. But sometimes, if the mandate of a strategy team is not clearly defined to the business unit, and the lines are always blurry with a strategy team, you've also seen situations where maybe the business unit is just handing off work to the strategy team, when really it should live with them.
So I would just say to make sure that you talk to strategy people, but also talk to maybe other functions, where they would technically be your internal clients, and just see, really, you know, what's the day to day interaction? Ask them about how do you all interact on a day to day basis? But also, how do you interact? on longer term initiatives? Who's responsible for ideation? Is it more of a partnership? Or is there dictation by one particular team? And then you can get a sense for Well, how was the work of that strategy team going to be valued by the business? How much influence will you have?
What do you think are the most interesting aspects of working in strategy?
Wow, there are so many, I would say, there are problems that maybe have been solved in the past, but maybe in a completely different environment, right, a set of circumstances. And, you know, maybe because of disruptions in the industry, or just, you know, the ecosystem is morphing, you get to maybe revisit some of those problems. And really, sometimes the solution can be very incredibly business critical, not to sound melodramatic, but the success of the business long term could really lie with how are you thinking about the business today? And I would say, just by nature of needing to be in that mindset, you are required to really be up on, you know, what's happening with trends in your industry, you know, what's happening with the big players, thinking about business development opportunities, you know, who are going to be your target clients, over, you know, X number of months or years? How are you thinking about transforming the business to maintain competitive advantages and or to get new advantages?
There's just this wealth of advantages that maybe a business could go after, but you get to decide, okay, what's worthwhile, and what's not? Where is the company, potentially not getting as much ROI? And you're helping senior management to answer those questions in a very thoughtful way, you know, you get to pull in a lot of external input. And that's an ongoing process. It's not just hey, we do this isolated project today. It's you could if you did that, you would just be creating an obsolete answer. So it really keeps you on your toes and you never get bored?
Are there any aspects that you do not like about this job?
I would say it’s something that is just nature of strategy more than it particularly being an issue, which is in-house strategy is really trying to politically maneuver. And what I mean by that is, you have to go into a business understanding, or at least trying to gain an understanding of what is the history or the evolution of a particular business unit, what has been the evolution of the relationships amongst the different teams, you know, understanding the history of how leadership became to be what it is. And all of these things are very important. Because when you go to say, try to work or to partner with certain teams, when you are trying to extract information, or you're trying to come to a consensus or to create recommendations, and to get political buy in from the business units, to present to other senior managers. Sometimes if you don't understand the context that's there, you may end up having some difficulties with coming up with, again, viable solutions for the business because, you know, you really need to take a step back and carefully position the way that you're approaching those business units. So I would say that it's not that I don't like that, but I would say it is probably the most difficult part of the job. We get better and better, obviously, the longer you spend time with a company you're with.
Are there any aspects that you find challenging? Is there anything else that you think is particularly hard about this function?
Sometimes you probably end up having to help to manage fire drills. So it could be something like, okay, the business doesn't necessarily have always have an understanding of what it takes to accomplish certain requests. And what I mean by that is, let's say that there's some kind of initiative, let's say you're looking at an acquisition or partnership market entry. And maybe the decision needs to be made in two days. But I think sometimes there's an issue with a business being able to kind of high level scope, what they need strategy to do. And strategy obviously has the skill set to know how to scope that out. But sometimes those ideals don't meet in the middle.
And there's this idea I think that strategy can do work in very high stress environments. But sometimes it's more than I think what some would expect in in-house regardless, that you could be in a very relaxed industry. But I would say that's something that is hard to escape in a strategy role.
It sounds like you guys are being viewed as very effective problem solvers. Like whenever there's like a last moment problem, you call upon someone from the strategy team to help you out.
Exactly. And I think, rightfully so, the business gets a little comfortable with, or usually businesses probably get comfortable with their strategy teams being able to support them when they may or may not have the people with the skill sets to help them, you know, come up with an answer that they need.
Are there any common misconceptions amongst people who are outside this function, about strategy?
I would say, two things. One is the point about the strategy team being a catch all. So if you know, there's something difficult that needs to be done, difficult is a very broad term, maybe we just give it to the strategy team. Because the mandate of a strategy team is often undefined, as you mentioned, right. And it is the responsibility of senior manager or senior management to communicate down to the business as a whole what their purpose is. So they could get overworked that way.
I think another misconception is that in companies where strategy is done in a silo, and what I mean by that is, they don't necessarily have as much interaction with the business units. Quite often the business units lose faith in strategy, being able to help them come up with viable solutions for problem, because what happens is that you may have a team that veers towards more a think tank that doesn't necessarily see anybody check their ideas of the business, like, hey, you need to go talk to the person who's been doing, you know, sales, or XY and Z for this long or has interactions with the client and get their feedback and their buy in. And so what happens in those situations is, you have people who think Oh, strategy is just, it's just really like the glamorous part of what we don't get to do or what we would like to do. But strategy doesn't have their ear to the ground in terms of what it takes to actually move the business.
And I would say, you know, personally, I believe strategy isn’t strategy if it's not operationally executable.
What do you think are some of the critical skills or qualities someone needs to have in order to do well in strategy?
I would say that you definitely need to be incredibly detail oriented. You need to be flexible and resourceful. Quite often you find yourself in situations where a decision needs to be made, and you need to find a way to make it in the face of limited information. So being creative in terms of finding proxies, finding people who have a certain knowledge where you may not have expertise, I would say you need to be really good at time management. And one of the most important aspects I think, is empathy and/or sympathy. And, you know, going back to my comment about just in order for you to position your interactions properly with your internal clients, or even those that may not be clients, but they're necessary input to what you need to provide to your internal client. You need to be able to understand other people's points of view, since the business is not necessarily there for you to just pump for information, right, and just even understanding that, hey, this particular person within this business unit has a day job, you know, they they have mandates that they must meet based on the targets that you know, the head of their group has set, and then you're going to them and ask them for additional information or for additional additional assistance on something that they may or may not have purview into, in terms of the project that you're working on. So, again, just having that point of view is really important.
Would you recommend any resources to people who are looking to either understand the function more, or for interview prep?
More than anything, you need to focus on finding resources tied to the industry of your particular interest. Understand, you know, who are the players. And by resources, I mean, you go and find the trade publications for that particular industry.
From a functional perspective - actually checking out different publications from consulting firms. And, you know, I'll give one example, from BCG. They put out interest pieces tied to industry trends, and say, paradigm shifts across the matrix of industries and functions that they do business. And so use something called BCG perspectives, and I'm pretty sure that some of the other consulting firms have something similar. And this is really helpful to think about, hey, what are the issues that are top of mind for say, again, the cross section of industry and function, but I think, in general, at the end of the day, you really just need to understand the mechanics of how the industry works. So you know, how was revenue generated? And again, what disruptions are and where could you see yourself fitting and where there's actually like longevity in the place that you see yourself fitting within that ecosystem?
Let's say I am interested in working in strategy, but I am not 100% sure, in terms of whether this is the right thing for me. Is there a good way for me to figure it out? One is I'm sure an internship kind of route. But say that's not an option for you. What else can you do?
Strategy is an ideal that transcends functions and industries. And if you think about it, right at the highest levels, such as the C suite, companies and the heads of different groups, like they have to do strategy, right, it's just, you may not see that in their title. But it's something that exists in a lot of other roles. So if for some reason, you don't necessarily want to go into a strategy role, specifically, and maybe again, it's about work life balance, or maybe you want to have be more hands on with operations. Or maybe you just enjoy doing sales more and actually getting out being in the field and talking to people than say, supporting the role. There's a lot of opportunity for someone, I think, to be successful in another function where they have a strategic line. And what do I mean by that? I find more often than not, a lot of functions get independent, it doesn't even matter what industry, they are more focused on the day to day. And again, that's how a lot of incentive structures are just built. It's like, okay, they're targets to hit. Usually, you're looking at annual targets, and a lot of these roles end up becoming very, operationally heavy to meet those targets. So to sit back and think about, hey, even though I'm not being incentivized to hit this particular target in five years, how can I think about doing this job better by thinking past what my current incentive structure is, and think about the long term and do that on an ongoing basis? So I would say that you can really do anything that you want to any function, and you can decide as to where you want to sit in terms of the spectrum of how much strategy you want to integrate into your day to day.
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