How to Become a Strategy Manager
If you ask a chess player the difference between tactics and strategy, they’ll tell you that tactics involve a short sequence of moves used to attack or capture a piece, while strategy involves long-term plans for victory, such as controlling the center of the board or optimizing piece mobility.
In the world of business, most people focus on a short sequence of actions to capture a profit or achieve an objective. But the grandmasters of the business sector are strategy managers: people who can see several moves ahead, and orchestrate short-, mid-, and long-term plans for success. Without them, a business would be hopelessly moving pieces around the board, with no cohesive rhyme or reason.
Strategy managers are at the core of a business’s decision-making. Often working with corporate executives and management teams, they collaborate across departments to determine and implement operational strategies. This role requires intense analytical ability, a keen business vision, and outstanding communication skills.
Bringing together all of a business’s pieces—human resources, finances, supply chain, and partnerships—it’s the job of a strategy manager to optimize discordant elements and get them moving in a unified direction.
Given the dynamic shifts in global business, it’s no surprise that strategy managers are in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) shows that management analysts, an occupation with similar responsibilities as strategy managers, are in high demand. Between 2019 and 2029, management analyst careers are estimated to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 11 percent, creating 93,800 new positions in the same time period.
Businesses have more moving parts than ever before: multinational supply chains, disaggregated data, cross-sector collaborations, and siloed business units. Strategy managers need to be well-versed in what makes each of them tick. If you’re ready to start moving pieces across the board, check out our guide to becoming a strategy manager below.
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Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Strategy Manager
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
After graduating from high school, the first step for aspiring strategy managers is to earn a bachelor’s degree. While there are a few dedicated strategic management programs at the undergraduate level, choosing a more fundamental major is often the better choice. Majoring in an area like business administration, management, economics, or finance can provide the building blocks for higher education and professional work across several sectors.
Admissions requirements for undergraduate programs vary from school to school, but often include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); SAT and/or ACT scores; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement.
Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business offers a bachelor of science (BS) degree in management that can be completed entirely online. The curriculum covers the fundamentals of the global economy and strategic resource management. Courses include topics such as microeconomic principles; business statistics; global supply operations; organization and management leadership; cross-cultural management; and problem-solving for actionable analytics. The 120-credit program costs approximately $688 per credit and can be completed in four years.
New York University’s Stern School of Business offers a bachelor of science degree in business at the school’s Manhattan campus. The degree program has 13 possible concentrations, including foci in operations, management, business economics, and global business.
The business core covers accounting, finance, marketing, and international business. Specific courses include topics such as microeconomic calculus; statistics for business control and regression/forecasting models; IT in business and society; management and organizations; and organizational communication. The program costs approximately $76,780 per year and can be completed in four years.
Step Two: Gain Initial Work Experience (Timeline Varies)
After earning their bachelor’s degree, many aspiring strategy managers seek out initial work experience before they go on to pursue graduate-level study. While it’s not a requirement for all master’s programs, early work experience can often be the best form of education available.
Entry-level jobs in practically any sector of business can provide a formidable foundation for future career growth. And, by working in the field, aspiring strategy managers can build their professional network and discover what niche of strategic management appeals most to them. It’s even possible that an employer will pay some portion of tuition for a master’s program.
Step Three: Earn an MBA (One to Two Years)
After earning a bachelor’s degree and gaining some early work experience, astute strategy managers will pursue a master’s in business administration (MBA). The business management skills and higher-level fundamentals in finance, economics, and management prepare graduates for work in the upper echelons of strategy management.
Admissions requirements for MBA programs vary from school to school but often include some combination of the following: a competitive (3.0 or greater) undergraduate GPA; GMAT or GRE scores; letter(s) of recommendation; a personal statement; and some amount of work experience.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton MBA is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, and it offers a specific concentration in strategic management. The flexible core curriculum covers management, marketing, microeconomics, statistics, and communication. The strategic management courses include topics such as competitive strategy and industrial structure; managing strategic partnerships; strategy and competitive advantage; strategic management of human assets; and managing established and emerging enterprises.
Students often complete the on-campus 19-credit program in 20 months. While the boost in salary does help to recoup the costs, the Wharton name still comes with a large price tag: tuition is $83,230 per year.
Niagara University has an MBA with a focus in strategic management and it can be completed entirely online. In addition to core business classes, students will take courses such as creative problem solving; strategic marketing; strategic supply chain management; strategic accounting analysis and planning; and business research, strategy, and planning.
While Niagara University may not have the prestige of an Ivy League school, it does offer an attractive investment opportunity: the 31 to 51-credit program costs $945 per credit and can be completed online in under two years.
Step Four: Achieve Initial Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)
After graduating from university and gaining some initial work experience, many strategy professionals choose to seek out industry certifications. While not a requirement, these certifications act as a mark of distinction on one’s CV and can lead to greater opportunities for advancement later on in one’s career. In addition, preparing for a certification exam can provide a type of industry-specific professional development that’s not available elsewhere.
The Association for Strategic Planning (ASP) offers the Strategic Planning Professional (SPP) certification for those who work on strategic objectives with executives, managers, and their teams. Applicants must have an undergraduate degree and a minimum of two years in an internal strategic planning role or as a junior external strategic planning consultant.
Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass a three-hour, 160-question exam that covers the foundational tenets of business acumen and strategic planning through the ASP’s model of “lead, think, plan, act.” Application and exam fees total $725 for ASP members and $925 for non-members. SPP-holders must recertify every three years—a time period in which they must also complete 50 contact hours of continuing education.
The Strategy Institute offers the Associate Business Strategy Professional (ABSP) certification for recent graduates of business and management programs. Work experience is not mandatory, but enrollment in (or completion of) a graduate-level business program is required.
Once deemed eligible, applicants receive exam preparation materials and a 45-day immersion period in which to review them. Upon successful completion of an online proctored exam, applicants will receive their ABSP certification. The exam fee is $775. ABSP-holders must recertify every three years by reviewing a brief learning module on any updates to the Strategy Institute’s body of knowledge and then complete a brief assessment on the material.
Step Five: Gain Professional Work Experience (Timeline Varies)
After earning a master’s degree and gaining some initial certification, it’s time for a strategy manager to put all their learning into practice. Professional strategy managers often pursue higher-level roles and responsibilities, managing large teams and coordinating with C-level executives. At this stage, strategy managers may still be learning on the job, but they’re also teaching others by taking on mentorship roles.
Step Six: Achieve Additional Professional Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)
After gaining more work experience in a particular sector, many strategic managers choose to pursue professional certification. While not a requirement, these top-level certifications cement a strategy manager as an expert in their field. In the middle and late stages of one’s career, professional certification acts as a point of distinction on top of the diplomas and work experience that one has accrued along the way.
Furthermore, professional certification communicates to possible employers and business partners that the certified strategy manager is fluent in the best practices and established methodologies of the industry.
The Association for Strategic Planning (ASP) offers the Strategic Management Professional (SMP) certification for strategic managers who work with C-level executives and their teams. In addition to an undergraduate degree, applicants will need at least five years of experience as an internal executive or an external consultant leading multiple strategic planning assessments. Applicants will also need to either hold an SPP credential (see step four above) or meet all of the SPP application conditions.
Once deemed eligible, applicants will take a three-hour, 160-question exam that covers core concepts around strategic leadership, strategic thinking, strategic planning, strategic action, and strategic management. The application fees and exam fees total $725 for members of ASP and $925 for non-members. SMP-holders need to recertify every five years—a window of time in which they must also complete 100 contact hours of continuing education.
The Strategy Institute offers the Senior Business Strategy Professional (SBSP) certification. For the SBSP certification, applicants need a graduate degree in a business-related area, as well as a minimum of three years of relevant work experience. Eligible applicants receive course materials and a 45-day review period, after which the applicant must pass an online-proctored exam. The SBSP certification package fee is $1,750 and the GBSL exam fee is $775.
Holders of either certification need to recertify every three years by participating in a short learning module on updates to the Strategy Institute’s body of knowledge, followed by a brief online assessment.
Helpful Resources for Strategy Managers
The world of business is constantly evolving, and so are the strategies that cause it to do so. If you want to get a look into where strategic management is today and where it’s going, check out some of the resources below.
- The Association for Strategic Planning
- The Strategy Institute
- Strategic Management Society
- Strategic Management Journal
- Journal of Strategy and Management