What You Need to Know Right Now to Level Up as a CSO
Virtually every post in the year-long series on this blog profiling C-Suite roles has talked about the need for all C-Suite roles to integrate strategy into their job functions. In turn, the strategy mandate has resulted from rapid change in the business world. “Confronted with trends in digitalization, globalization, ever more stringent government regulations, and increasingly complex supply chains and organizational structures, executive leaders are being pressured to continuously develop and implement more robust strategy in order to respond, adapt and get ahead,” writes John Nimesheim.
This growing emphasis on strategy is a big reason for the emergence, especially in the last decade or so, of the Chief Strategy Officer (CSO, not to be confused with Chief Sustainability Officer or Chief Security Officer). The top strategy officer may also have a title such as chief strategist, VP of corporate strategy, or VP strategic development. Research back in 2007 by Harvard Business Review identified more than 90 titles for the top strategy executive.
Traditionally, strategy has been the purview of the CEO (sometimes COO or CFO) but especially in larger companies, strategy has become too big for the CEO alone to handle. Some experts have suggested CEOs are better at developing strategy than executing it, thus leaving execution to the CSO.
CSOs oversee long- and short-term strategic initiatives and goals. They helm strategy planning and development, resource allocation, and strategy execution. They identify growth opportunities and monitor trends. (Get a feel for a day in the life of a CSO). A 2013 report from Boston Consulting Group points out that CSO responsibilities vary by industry. The report points to an emphasis on strategic planning and cross-business-unit strategy in consumer-goods companies, but in industrial-goods companies, a greater priority on increasing shareholder value through portfolio management, M&A, and identifying growth opportunities. Writer Caitlin Stanway-Williams observes that the CSO job description is “in a constant state of flux.”
Perhaps no phenomenon illustrates the variations and flux in the CSO role better than the fact that no fewer than four articles/reports have characterized the role in terms of diverse CSO personas:
In yet another nod to the role’s variability, Stanway-Williams describes the role as ranging “from the sole curator of the company’s direction with an ear direct to the CEO, the one who may lead the business acquisitions and define the vision – to simply a PowerPoint expert who puts other people’s thoughts and ideas into digestible leadership materials.”
CSOs face daunting challenges. A PWC 2018 Chief Strategy Officer Benchmarking Study of 187 CSOs across the globe, revealed that only 25 percent of respondents felt they were “very successful” at creating value for their company. PWC’s research further found that 65 percent of respondents across industries don’t think their company has a winning strategy. The report identifies unclear definition of the CSO role and confusing priorities, as well as the “breadth and ambiguity” of the CSO role, for these dismal numbers. It also notes that only 28 percent of CSOs fully agreed that they have a seat at the table at the same level as that of other senior executives. Almost half don’t meet more than twice a month with their CEO to discuss strategy.
Key Competencies for the CSO Role
It’s possible to land a CSO role with only a bachelor’s degree (especially in general business, marketing, sports marketing, or media), although an MBA or other advanced degree can certainly bolster your credentials, as will certification. The Association for Strategic Planning (ASP) offers the Strategic Planning Professional (SPP) and Strategic Management Professional (SMP) certifications.
When preparing career-marketing communications to send to employers, those aspiring to the CSO role should emphasize these qualities:
- Strategic planning
- Strategic execution
- Market and competitor analysis skills
- Risk-management skills
- Portfolio analysis
- Initiative prioritization
- Understanding of capital allocation
- Innovation skills
- Cultural and social awareness
- Storytelling skills
Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to break into the CSO role, expand their horizons in an existing CSO role, or even rise beyond the CSO role:
- Clarify expectations. We’ve already seen how different the CSO role can be from organization to organization and, via the PWC report, that poor CSO role definition and unclear priorities can demoralize CSOs. Thus, it’s critical to have a crystal-clear understanding of what is expected of you in the role, and especially grasp the CEO’s expectations.
- Leverage the first few months on the job. Deloitte’s Making of a Successful Chief Strategy Officer advises engaging in one-on-one discussions about the company’s current strategy and defining near-term activities and priorities.
- Be the yin to the CEO’s yang. Given that strategy is also integral to the CEO’s role, the CSO’s skills and personality should complement the CEO’s. “The CSO should feel comfortable enough to challenge the CEO’s thinking,” asserts EY’s The DNA of the Chief Strategy Officer, “but should otherwise be in lockstep with each other as it relates to strategy development and execution.” Author Nirmalya Kumar suggests CSOs should ask themselves, “How do you add value to the organization and the CEO without taking away the limelight from the CEO?” and consider “how to be adequately deferential to the CEO, yet … push the CEO’s thinking on strategy.”
- Be a strategy unicorn. So advises the Web site of the software company AchieveIt: “Strategy unicorns “have a deep background in leadership and strategic planning (many times stemming from a military background), and are adept at both situational planning and resource allocation. They are not only well versed in the corporate strategy, but have deep connections within every business unit of a company.”
CSO Trends to Watch
- Use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will result in better forecasts regarding strategic options. AI impacts every C-Suite role, and for CSOs, it can yield state-of-the-art planning, forecasting, and trend-analysis capabilities. AI training can be a big advantage for ambitious CSOs.
- Accelerated pace of change requires fast action. The blog Outthinker cautions CSOs not to “wait a year to assess whether the shift you are seeing in your marketplace represents an early signal or whether it represents an inflection point that could change the industry.”
- Employee innovation gets activated. “Forward-looking strategy officers are seeking, and finding, new ways to activate innovation broadly throughout their organizations,” Outthinker notes, resulting in a workforce that “will evolve rapidly with creativity, innovativeness, lateral thinking, and problem-solving becoming more critical workforce capabilities.”