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The strategist - Safeguarding the competitive edge

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IT is left to this individual to support the chief executive's office in ensuring that, even in the most challenging of time, the company — any company — maintains its competitive edge. He/she is the strategy manager.

Career & Education turns this week to Imani Duncan, the former Group Strategy Manager & Manager for Corporate Solutions at Jamaica Money Market Brokers (JMMB) for insight into the this job option.

The 34-year-old is currently Group Marketing Manager for the financial institution, a position she has occupied since April 2009 — two years after joining the JMMB family.

Duncan holds a first degree in economics, philosophy, government and history, with a minor in environmental policy from Wesleyan University and a master's in international development focusing on Business and Government relations and growth from Harvard University.

Prior to working with the JMMB, Duncan was employed to the World Bank and to the management consulting firms the Monitor Group and the OTF Group. She also co-founded the Caribbean Policy Research Institute and was a former director of the Development Bank of Jamaica.

Now, in addition to being a JMMB executive, she is owner/operator for My Tropic Escape, a boutique adventure travel company. She is, too, a director of the board for the Kingston YMCA, a member of the Board Investment and Credit Committee for Key Insurance and chair of the Communications and Creative Engagement Committee for Youth Upliftment Through Employment, a private-sector led coalition.

Who is a strategy manager?

A strategy manager is someone who supports the CEO's office and leads the development, buy-in and management of corporate strategy. Corporate strategy is grounded in a more medium- to long-term view focusing on achieving and maintaining a strong competitive advantage for the company vis-à-vis the industry in which it plays. Corporate strategy is essentially about knowing where your company is today, where you want to take it, and how you are going to get there. It focuses on key questions for a company, such as: who are your target client segments? What competitive services/products/solutions do you provide that is of value to the target client segments? In which markets or business lines will we operate (locally and regionally)? How will we differentiate and organise teams and the operations within the company to deliver value to our target clients? In a company like JMMB, while the CEO and executive leadership sets the direction for the corporate strategy, the details of the execution plan are defined by various teams throughout the company as in order to execute effectively, alignment and buy-in is critical at all levels. The strategy manager works to ensure there is understanding and development of the strategy throughout the company and thereafter supports the executive team in implementation and monitoring results over the course of the company's financial year to facilitate course correction where necessary.

What is the value of the work a strategy manager does?

Oftentimes it is easy for managers to get caught up in the 'here and now' of running a business day to day, especially in a constantly changing environment of a developing country like Jamaica. As such the value of strategic planning and management is to keep the medium- and long-term future in the forefront with the leadership team so that JMMB, as a publicly traded company, continues to generate growth and ultimately long-term sustainable shareholder value — not just short-term wins. As they say, if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there, and that simply isn't an option for a company like JMMB that seeks to grow effectively and sustainably within our Vision 2025.

What was it that prompted your entry into the field?

While pursuing my two-year master's in international development at Harvard University's Kennedy School, I attended a forum with Michael Fairbanks, a leading economic development strategist. He said something which really impacted me: 'Governments don't create wealth, companies do. So if developing countries wanted to grow, companies in those markets had to become stronger, more nimble to become internationally competitive, companies had to develop strategy capability. Otherwise, they would remain small relative to a global scale'. I was pursuing my degree to figure out how to contribute to that growth objective for Jamaica and so I immediately asked him after if I could do my summer internship with him. And so I worked during that summer at the management consulting firm called the Monitor Group in Boston. The team I worked with focused on strategy development and execution with governments and companies in developing countries. I worked with Bermuda and the Dominican Republic in particular, and fell in love with that type of rigorous approach to thinking strategically towards an objective and working with a team to determine the most effective plan to achieve the shared vision and goals for a country or company.

What do your current responsibilities entail?

As group marketing manager, I am responsible for the marketing strategy, design and execution for JMMB Jamaica and JMMB's operations in the Dominican Republic. This includes brand management for the JMMB Group as well as marketing strategy for the investments, cambio, equities, insurance, pensions, credit, and financial planning business lines across the regional operations.

What is a typical day like for you on the job?

Hectic — non-stop from as early as 6:30 am on the Blackberry at home to 8:00 pm at my desk if I'm lucky. I get to work early and leave late to get actual work done. (This involves) thinking through strategy, opportunities, action planning, following up on execution, analysing reports to enable self-correction of the strategy, etc — all in the quiet time. Then at about 10:00 am (through to) 5:00 pm my day is filled with different meetings with a variety of stakeholders at JMMB — the CEO, the strategy management team, our Client Intimacy Group, Change Management Team, and external partners critical to achieving the company's strategic objectives. Then in between, I also find or make time for my activities outside of JMMB responsibilities.

What do you most enjoy about the work that you do?

The intellectual rigour and working with a creative, bright and motivated team as we seek to identify, generate and respond to opportunities for growth in JMMB's client base in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, which ultimately leads to growth for the company.

What are the challenges that you face on the job?

There are so many moving pieces, responsibilities and stakeholders that fall within my remit — all with priorities for the 'here and now' . It is sometimes difficult to keep at the forefront what are the medium-to long-term growth objectives and how to make sure my team focuses on activities and initiatives that ultimately lead to those objectives — not just focus on what seems to be the most critical today. All this is challenging also (because) as a manager the professional development of my team is also important. However, I am not always able to focus effectively on that, given the numerous responsibilities to oversee, manage or execute directly.

What are the academic requirements for entry into the field?

Most strategy managers and/or marketing managers have an MBA with a focus on strategy management, general management or marketing.

What other skills and/or competencies are required for the field?

Apart from the academic requirements, experience goes a long way in strategy management as you develop insight as you work with more and more companies, and industries, identifying and working through similar challenges or patterns. A big part of strategy planning and management is analysis of data, trend and pattern recognition so that you can apply relevant frameworks that are used by leading companies globally to sort through challenges and turn them into winning opportunities where possible for the competitive advantage of the company. So before taking on the role for strategy manager at one company, it is ideal to work at a management consulting firm for a few years and get experience working with a range of companies of different sizes and in different industries so you gain perspective and insight that you can bring to the role as an internal strategy manager focusing on one company.

How much can one earn as a strategy manager on an annual basis?

In Jamaica, between $3m and $6m. (This is) typically dependent on the level of experience and range of oversight, that is, (whether) it is one company you're managing strategy for or a group of companies.

Why would you advise anyone to get into the field?

Because it is a great launching pad to move or grow into almost any executive role at a company. Ultimately, from the perspective of strategy manager, you work most closely with the CEO and get a holistic view of the company in which you work and how all the elements come together to create value and generate growth. Having an overall understanding of the big picture and long-term objectives only enhances any other contribution you may make in an executive role.

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