Elevating your Career with a Focus on Strategic Acumen

September 30, 2022


Whether we’ve been in the career a few months, a few years, or even a few decades, we can always learn something new.

In our early days, we build on whatever formal education we bring to this career. At that stage, our focus is often twofold: we want to fit in and become an effective member of the team, however small or substantial that team may be. In addition to learning the ropes, we also tend to focus on learning or enhancing the technical skills required for whatever role we’ve landed.

Considering the extent to which technology is part of the role, it’s a given that we’ll learn new software skills throughout our careers. After all, the skills that help us land a job aren’t necessarily the skills that will keep us there, let alone help us elevate and advance our careers. Think, for example, of all the new skills each of us has gained since spring 2020. Preparing minutes is another example, as recording standards and expectations have evolved substantially over time and we can all use refreshers.   

Times change, and so do business practices. Astute assistants routinely invest time in maintaining skills currency, which implies a lifelong commitment to learning and development. This includes both hard skills we can quantify, and “soft” (a misnomer if ever there was one) skills. I train assistants, and the areas of heaviest demand have traditionally been related to communication skills, which boil down to emotional intelligence (EQ/IQ) skills we can develop, and skills that help us to effectively record meetings.

Assistants, even those who’ve been recording meetings for ages, want to build confidence and elevate the quality of their minutes so they capture what today’s stakeholders want and need. Assistants also recognize the importance of being assertive, which is important in working alongside powerful people, and many are attuned to professional development focusing on influence and leadership.

These are all relevant for goal setting and for your career and personal progress. When it comes to career currency, and to truly elevate your career, more and more assistants are also paying attention to what I think of as strategic acumen. When we think about the term acumen, we think about skills associated with judgment and decision-making in business. A good assistant exercises strong judgment and decision-making skills on a routine basis. Sometimes, perhaps even more so given hybrid careers, it’s easy to function and think within operational silos. The more we pay attention to other portfolios within our workplace, and to the organization’s strategy, culture, and competitive (external) landscape, the better informed we’ll be in our own decision-making.

Whether you’re interested in honing influence or leadership, or want to gain an understanding of the challenges and opportunities your executive colleagues face in leading your organization, it makes sense to expand the scope of your professional development. When we look beyond our own desks, laptops, and position descriptions, we’re better able to understand and discuss strategy with current and prospective stakeholders. This can elevate our prospects and our careers.

So, where will you start? In the not-so-distant past, an employer’s strategic (strat) plan was typically a bulky document that went unread by many. Increasingly, employers are making their approved strategic plans more accessible. Rather than sitting down to a pile of pages, hard copy or digital, you may be able to access a series of brief PDFs that tell the story of where the organization is, and where it plans to go.

Strategic plans reflect aspirations, along with metrics such as key performance indicators (KPIs) so we can measure progress toward success. Those metrics, secured and assessed periodically throughout the course of a strategic plan, may also point to a need to shift gears or otherwise adjust plans. When you familiarize yourself with your organization’s strategic plan, you may have deeper insights on how your area of the organization contributes to and impacts the success of the strategic plan.

That, in turn, can inform your own goal setting, which more than a few assistants find challenging when it comes to preparing for performance reviews. By aligning at least one of your goals with those of your principal (boss) or business unit, you’re signaling your engagement as well as your understanding of operational and strategic priorities.

How else can you elevate your strategic acumen and your career? Have a look at your employer’s governance structure and governance in general. If you have a board, what do you know about the board’s role? Whether board members are called directors, trustees, governors, or some other term, what do you know about their responsibilities and accountabilities? If board-related materials are published to an intranet or other accessible resource, you have a head start. If the world of governance sounds daunting, there are webinars that can give you a solid grounding in understanding this aspect of how organizations are led.

Do you see or prepare reports related to cybersecurity or other risks? Do those heat maps, risk registers, or references to ERM (enterprise risk management) sometimes look Greek to you? Do you have access to information about your organization’s risk appetite? Has your workplace established a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policy?  What do you know about your organization’s budget priorities? Are funds being allocated to or directed from specific priorities? Then there’s environment, social, and governance, which is also known as ESG.

Do you need to be an expert in any of these topics in order to elevate your strategic acumen? You do not. You can ask people in your organization who are subject matter experts if they’d be willing to share information with you or your internal network or point you to informational resources. You can attend webinars, or conference sessions on these topics. If terms such as ESG are new to you, you’re in very good company. At a national conference this June, I presented a half-day session on adding value to our organizations by virtue of elevating our acumen. In a room full of assistants, only two were familiar with what ESG represented. If you’d asked the executives of all those assistants in the room about ESG, more than a few of them may have been hard pressed to effectively describe its commendable purpose. ESG is a relative newcomer to boardrooms and to management teams’ agendas.

In this era when all of us are grappling with evolving workplace norms, we hear about futureproofing our careers. When I hear this term, it calls to mind the term childproofing, and safety devices or preparations to help ensure something harmful won’t happen to a little one. Childproofing may also involve making certain things inaccessible to little ones, to keep those objects safe and to keep fragile objects safe from those same youngsters.

Let’s look to the future, not with the intent of futureproofing it. Instead, let’s think about how to ensure we’re future-ready. We can do this by committing to ongoing learning, informally and otherwise. We can and should continue to refresh and enhance our hard and soft skills. When we also elevate our strategic acumen, we’re demonstrating engagement, curiosity, and ambition, all of which can see us elevating our careers.

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