Strategic Planning Manager

A professional corporate strategic planning manager, or chief strategy officer, may be employed by some larger organizations. Often they are handed the management of the strategic planning process. This, it is argued, has the great advantage that they will better understand the organization than an external consultant. It is further believed that a person in the role of strategic planning manager will be in touch with the opinions, biases, and capabilities of the management team of the organization.

These things may well be true. But against these apparent benefits I would set a significant potential drawback. Handing over the strategic planning process to just one senior manager may result in other managers feeling a distinct lack of ‘ownership’ of the corporate strategic plan.

That the senior executives of an enterprise do not feel they ‘own’ a corporate strategic plan, a plan that is not proposed by them, is a serious matter. The organization depends on them being committed to its implementation, sometimes against great obstacles.

Unfortunately not only is this concern neither trivial nor marginal, it appears to be central. This then, should certainly temper enthusiasm over the advantages of employing one’s own internal strategic planning manager, or chief strategy officer.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying there is no role for a senior manager to be a director of planning, or chief strategy officer (CSO), or any of the many other role titles employed by various organizations. I have been a Chief Planning Officer myself at a couple of organizations, and a Director of Development that also included responsibility for the strategic planning process.

For a useful perspective on the way the role of chief strategy officer has developed, see the study by Taman H. Powell and Duncan N. Angwin in the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Dimensions of strategic planning manager role

Planning manager as stage manager - the first aspect of the role of the strategic planning manager is clarifying the stages of the strategic planning process. This fits a spectrum from formulation to execution of strategic plans.

The second perspective on the role of the strategic planning manager is how they are engaged in strategic planning. This can range across process facilitation, advising planning team members and other managers during the strategy development, or assisting in the implementation of strategy.

Others sometimes are far more actively involved, as members of the planning team, and even having their own strategic projects to implement, and having a team to enable this.

The possible kinds of role can include at least the following -

  • Managing
  • Assisting
  • Advising
  • Facilitating

Considering these possible variations a few types of strategic planning manager roles emerge.

Types of strategic planning manager  

By emphasizing various combinations of activity and responsibility among the cells of the above table, one can imagine a vast number of possible roles for strategic planning managers, or chief strategy officers (CSO).

Each enterprise should devise their own position description using this table as a kind of checklist. However, not every possible combination of cells represents a valid or useful job.

Possible roles for a strategic planning manager

There appear to be three broad options for the role of strategic planning director.

This first possible role is that of internal strategist -

In this possible role for a planning director as internal strategist, they invite the other top managers into a process to prepare the strategic plan. Sometimes this is the approach adopted by many so called chief strategy officers.

This at first glance would appear to give more scope for the top managers to ‘own’ the resulting plan. Too often however, they will still perceive the plan as that of the planning manager, as they will seem to hold the power and authority to engage, or not engage, other managers in the exercise. Their role with respect to the CEO in the process may be unclear.

This is a strategic planning manager who operates a bit like external strategy consultants. They are focused almost exclusively on strategy formulation by themselves or with their strategy team. The execution of the strategy, the ownership and responsibility for its implementation, is the responsibility of business unit managers, who may have only a data providing role in the formulation stages. These CSOs carry out activities similar to traditional management consultants.

I do not encourage this approach.

CSO may be a member of corporate management team.

Another possible role for a CSO or strategic planning manager is to contribute, as a member of the planning team itself, providing they are of sufficient stature.

I do not rule this out. This is because they may then become just one contributor among the several on the team. However, as a member of the team and as planning director, this person’s influence may exceed that of any other participating manager. This too may result in weaker ownership of the plan by the team as a whole. This may be especially so if the corporate planning manager has been selected for this post because they are academically highly qualified, and are regarded as a ‘strategic planning guru’.

The perception that corporate strategic planning requires rocket scientist intellectual capacity dies hard. Such a strategic planning director may be perceived as lacking in practical hands on management experience, and incapable of understanding how challenging it is to execute certain apparently brilliant strategies in the real world.

They may also be involved in an exercise of ‘blinding their colleagues with science’. There may be a strong temptation to complicate everything, to justify the level of such an appointment, and a small army of experts to supply all the analysis that seems required.

The third alternative is for the planning executive to act as a planning assistant and/ or facilitator.

This is a role where the ‘manager’ element refers to the management of a staff function or planning unit, that provides support to the CEO, and their planning team, in the conduct of the planning process.

I believe this is the more appropriate way to think of this role. So what does this role entail?

There are two broad aspects of this version of the strategic planning manager role.

  • Advisory role, and this is the provision of advice on the conduct of the planning process. It may also include advising on particular aspects of the content, and suggesting tools to aid the planning team in their deliberations.

    In all but the very large organization this role should not require a very large planning department to support the role.

  • The other aspect of the role is a hands-on one of being the facilitator of the strategic planning process. I have suggested elsewhere that there may be some value in employing an independent external person for the facilitation role.

Sometimes it is possible to combine these two aspects in the one role, where a suitable person is available. They need to have high credibility with other senior managers.

Where the person in the strategic planning manager role is in a larger organization, there may be a range of specialist support staff to help the planning director or CSO in their tasks.

Possible tasks for the strategic planning manager

Planning departments most certainly have their valuable contribution to make, including the accountabilities to:

  • provide unbiased, professional, independent studies for the top executives,
  • make economic and market forecasts,
  • provide position papers on particular industry and enterprise issues,
  • analyze country risks,
  • hunt for new business areas,
  • make strategic suggestions,
  • analyze strategic proposals,
  • apply planning techniques, and
  • search for acquisition candidates.

However helpful to the top managers, these things are not themselves corporate strategic planning; it is more often technique-orientated support for planning. This in no way detracts from the value of such planning departments.

Caution needs to be exercised in how large and specialized these departments become. For example a planning department that becomes very expert at analyzing mergers and acquisition strategies may tend to influence the strategic planning process towards a focus on such strategies. At times the organization may need to consider a stronger emphasis on organic growth, or even divestment.

Planning departments outputs are inputs to the strategic plan, not the plan itself

What I have been saying about individual planning managers, also applies to so-called planning departments, such as those set up in many large organizations.

In my experience, organizations with large corporate or strategic planning departments are more likely to miss out on detecting and addressing major strategic issues, than those without such departments. This is because the top executives, who have delegated the strategic planning function, have sometimes gone too far in giving away what they should be personally accountable for.

The specialists who staff these departments usually lack the authority, the operational experience, and the industry specific knowledge to address the strategic elephants, so they may not get the attention they warrant.

Roles for the strategic planning manager

I have clearly stated my preference for a strategic planning manager to be in a supporting or assisting role to the corporate strategic planning team, led by the chief executive.

I also acknowledged that different organizations will have different expectations of such a role. Therefore I offered some aspects of accountability for such a position. With this in mind chief executives can configure the planning manager position to suit the needs of their strategic planning team.

I believe that in the overwhelming majority of organizations the responsibility for preparing the organization’s overall strategic plan should rest with those who hold the reins of power.

The very first step any top managers should take, after deciding to go ahead with such an exercise, is to form themselves into a planning team.

If they appoint someone to help them with the process, this person must be clearly delegated specific supporting roles, and they should understand the plan is the plan agreed to, and committed to, by these senior managers, and not the planning manager’s plan.

That is why I would prefer that this role not be designated chief strategy officer, or chief planning officer, or other designation that implies that accountability for the strategic plan rests with anyone other than the CEO and their immediate colleagues.

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