What the hell does a “strategic account manager” do all day?

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I feel like the working world could use a few less strategic account managers.

This title seems to jam up my LinkedIn whenever I go on there, which is admittedly not as much as I used to.

Now, before we careen off the rails here, let’s hit this target quickly: oftentimes companies have clients/partners, which are accounts. And theoretically they want to deal with those accounts in a strategic way, yes? OK, good. Therein lies the rationale for strategic account managers.

But as Mike Myers used to say on Coffee Talk on Saturday Night Live:

“Strategic account managers are neither strategic nor managers. Discuss.”

Strategic account managers: Issue 1

They’re not often strategic.

At most companies, “strategy” has unfortunately become a buzzword. There’s research on that link saying 95% of employees in enterprise have no idea what the “strategy” of where they work is. If 9.5 in 10 people have no idea what’s going on, it’s kind of a ‘tree falls in the forest’ situation. Most companies I’ve seen or observed spend about a quarter making some “strategic road map” but unfortunately, it has no real tie to execution-level work. Essentially it could be a child’s Crayon writing of “Make more money and show growth” and it would have the same essential impact as whatever thing you just spent three months working on.

This is what strategic account managers often do: they claim to be “strategic” but essentially they are hitting process targets for someone else. These always seem to be the roles that force you to do 12 things (upload this document here, etc.) when 1–2 things would get the job done productively. When “strategic” becomes “box-checking,” which it sadly often does, that’s bad.

Strategic account managers: Issue 2

Any job title with “strategic” or “strategy” is just a play at (a) slightly more money on the employee side and (b) slightly more relevance on the employer side. (“We’ve employed a strategist, so we’re about to hit those revenue goals.”) Every time I’ve worked with strategic account managers, they basically manage a bunch of different spreadsheets and kinda “hop on calls” with “stakeholders” a lot. Meetings, conference calls, and spreadsheets are not strategic.

This is what “strategic” might look like, ideally:

  • Identify business critical people needs
  • Determine new revenue stream possibilities
  • Figure out issues like retention and attrition
  • Create a 10-year map based on current hiring/firing rates and executive growth goals
  • Constantly work with the accounts on how your company can be of more value

Instead, most strategic account managers lead most days with “Oh God, so many emails!” or “No time for that, I have a standing 1:15 with my stakeholders!” Again, those are process points. They need to happen, yes, but that doesn’t make you a strategic thinker or manager.

And Issue 3 with strategic account managers

… because people usually don’t matter in organizations — if they did, HR wouldn’t “own” people — a lot of times you’ll see “strategic account managers” also have direct reports of their own. But here’s what happens: these account managers are usually bonus’ed/perked off of their returns from the accounts, i.e. the clients. So that’s where they focus 99.9 percent of their attention — externally. Now you’ve got people reporting into them — internally, obviously — who essentially get ignored all week because “A key strategic account has an urgent need I must address!”

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I actually worked on a project once with a woman who reported to one of these strategic account managers. Every week, this project — which not a soul really cared about at a high level — ran in circles or sideways. Finally, about seven weeks in, I just asked this lady what the deal was. She said “My boss basically never speaks to me so I don’t really know either.” That’s the issue. You can’t have the title “manager” if you don’t actually manage people. But in many job roles, it’s fine to just focus on the stuff you understand or the stuff that will get you more incentives. You can usually avoid the rest and be fine as long as you don’t alienate the wrong people and show some returns.

I’m sure there are some amazing strategic account managers in the world, yes. But from what I’ve seen, the job title just kind of underscores everything that’s wrong with how we set up companies nowadays: bureaucracy to the hilt, process up the wazoo, utter confusion about strategy, and unclear job roles galore.

What else you got on strategic account managers?

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