Outlook for the Chief Strategy Officer Role

What You Need to Know Right Now to Level Up as a CSO

business plan flow chart on chalkboard

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:

CSO chart

*Deloitte, EY, Harvard Business Review, Marakon Consulting

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
  • Self-control
  • Data-driven
  • Storytelling skills

Level-Up Tips

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.”

Outlook for the Chief Sustainability Officer Role

What You Need to Know Right Now to Level Up as a Chief Sustainability Officer

SustainabilityThe Chief Sustainability Officer role emerged, as writer Gael O’Brien notes, in the last 20 years “as it became clear that companies were expected to address their impact and share responsibility in solving some of the world’s biggest problems.” In The Atlantic, Christine Bader asserts that the country’s first Chief Sustainability Officer was appointed in 2004, at DuPont.

Chief Sustainability Officers (this article uses the CSO acronym, even though it also applies to other C-Suite roles, such as Chief Security Officer) address such areas as energy-use reduction, resource conservation, recycling, pollution prevention, waste elimination, transportation efficiency, building design, human rights, and community development. In some companies, the sustainability element of the role is joined by safety, environment, corporate responsibility, or global corporate citizenship.

Sustainability recruiter Ellen Weinreb sees the CSO as not just the top corporate-social-responsibility professional for a company, but one of the top leaders of the company making key strategic decisions. Weinreb suggests that listing the CSO on the company’s 10-K, the SEC filing that identifies the corporation’s accountability to shareholders shows that “sustainability is owned at the top and integral to strategic decision-making.”

The number of C-Suite officers holding this CSO role is still relatively small. In her company’s 2018 GreenBiz State of the Profession, Weinreb reported only 44 CSOs at publicly traded companies as of the end of 2018, up from 29 in 2011. Gender parity is not far off, with the CSO population consisting of 55 percent men and 45 percent women.

Key Competencies for the Chief Sustainability Officer Role

The minimum educational requirement for a Chief Sustainability officer is a bachelor’s or master’s degree in business or an environmental science field, such as biology. Professional certification is available through several organizations, including the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP-Certified Sustainability Associate or Professional) and the Center for Sustainability and Excellence (Certified Sustainability Practitioner).

In your career-marketing communications, showcase the Chief Sustainability Officer competencies and characteristics on this list you possess:

  • Effective, succinct, and persuasive communicate skills. Tim Mohin, CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, writes: “The ability to condense complicated topics into a relevant and cogent set of messages and present them skillfully can be the differentiator for your success.” More than one expert takes this skill a step further, suggesting that Chief Sustainability Officers also function as Chief Storytelling Officers.
  • Both business acumen and a passion for a sustainable environment, along with current expertise in sustainable business practices, energy production, consumption, and environmental impact.
  • Strategic ability to promote sustainable initiatives inside and outside the organization.
  • Creativity and problem-solving skills.
  • Systems thinking.
  • Collaborative skills.

Level-Up Tips

Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to break into the Chief Sustainability Officer role, expand their horizons in an existing Chief Sustainability Officer role, or even rise beyond the Chief Sustainability Officer role:

  • Broaden your experience. “The issues under the sustainability umbrella keep growing,” notes Weinreb. In fact, as Tim Mohin cautions, “The breadth of this role can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The terrifying part is being asked to represent areas you know very little about. The exhilarating aspect is learning about all of these areas.” Simon Propper, CEO of Context, which helps companies with sustainability strategy, refers to this breadth of expertise as “multi-specialization.”
  • Take advantage of outsider status. While at least half of sustainability hires once were internal, Weinreb reports that “companies are looking outside their business for talent.” Today the percentage of outside hires is close to two-thirds. The reasons tie in with the need for broad knowledge and experience. You have the opportunity to sell your next employer on your wide-ranging, external perspective.
  • Gauge the top-down commitment to sustainability of your employer or prospective employer. Propper advises studying the company and the CEO. If you see “only token executive support” for sustainability, you will likely find it frustrating to spark transformation.
  • Show how sustainability adds value. You can make great inroads in this role if you can persuade others that sustainability drives value. Innovation and growth can be seen as the enemies of sustainability. You will stand out if you can help people understand how to integrate growth and sustainability (and how, in fact, sustainability can spark innovation, as seen in the Trends that follow).

Chief Sustainability Officer Trends to Watch

  • Strategy plays an increasing role in sustainability. Important and fundamental changes are occurring in the sustainability role, Coro Strandberg notes. Writing in a briefing paper, Next-Generation Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Jobs, Strandberg predicts, “the role shifts, job descriptions evolve, and skills change as organizations transition from an operational to a strategic sustainability focus.” One way to build strategic capacity in yourself is to develop expertise in scenario planning, advises Gilbert “Gib” Hedstrom, president of consulting firm Hedstrom Associates.
  • Simultaneously, sustainability plays an increasing role in business strategy. In his book, Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto, Adam Werbach asserts, “any strategy without sustainability at its core is just plain irresponsible ­– bad for business, bad for shareholders, bad for the environment.” To build that sustainable core, Propper observes, “the trend is to embed sustainability expertise in core functions such as sourcing, manufacturing, facilities, R&D, communications and marketing,” even suggesting that sustainability will be so integrated into business strategy that the CSO role will no longer be necessary.
  • The CSO title is frequently used to send a message. Strandberg points to greater use of the title Chief Sustainability Officer “to signal intent and commitment and facilitate strategic conversations.”
  • Environmental challenges fuel innovation and creativity. In fact, a study by Ram Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad, and M.R. Rangaswami in Harvard Business Review labels sustainability the key driver of innovation. “Our research shows that sustainability is a mother lode of organizational and technological innovations that yield both bottom-line and top-line returns,” the authors reveal.

2019 Outlook for the CSO/CISO Role

What You Need to Know this Year to Level Up as a Chief (Information) Security Officer

CISOLike most C-Suite functions, the CSO role is evolving, having first appeared as the position overseeing security within the information-technology function. CSO is used interchangeably with Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), although writer Josh Fruhlinger asserts that “the CISO title is becoming more prevalent for leaders with an exclusive information-security focus.” A few CSOs also oversee employee and facility physical security, though a more typical title for such a role is Vice President or Director of Corporate Security.

CSOs/CISOs emerge from a variety of backgrounds, including government, the corporate world, and startups. Diverse educational backgrounds also are common in the field; however, experts have suggested that increasingly, organizations will require master’s degrees in cybersecurity for CSOs/CISOs. This is a growth position given the constant threat of cyberattacks.

Writing for Forbes, Ted Schlein summarizes the role: “The CSO must be technically adept, with an intuitive understanding of a company’s systems, how hackers might penetrate them, and how to defend against attacks. And because no company, no matter how invested it is in cybersecurity, is fully immune from cyber threats, the CSO must also understand how to detect, contain, and remediate the attacks that do occur.”

Key Competencies for the 2019 CSO Role

In your career-marketing communications, showcase the competencies on this list you possess:

  • Collaborative skills and the ability to build consensus among stakeholders.
  • Technical aptitude with intuitive understanding of a wide range of relevant systems, as well as techniques hackers might use to infiltrate them and ways to defend against attacks.
  • Extensive ability to plan, design, develop, test, implement, and oversee IT security systems, including security-monitoring and detection tools, and be able to identify, contain, and recover from cyberattacks.
  • Strong leadership, negotiation, and persuasive ability.
  • Technical curiosity and willingness to learn from mistakes.

Level-Up Tips

CSOs/CISOs typically offer about 7-8 years of experience in information security, strong leadership skills, the ability to communicate to a non-technical staff, and at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science. They can enhance their marketability with an advanced degree specializing in information security or information assurance. Look for academic programs offered by universities recognized by the National Security Agency. Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to break into the CSO/CISO role, expand their horizons in an existing CSO/CISO role, or even rise beyond the CSO/CISO role:

  • Build relationships and network. In an excellent article about succeeding as a CSO/CISO, Stefan Sulistyo suggests that these roles and departments are particularly helpful to form bonds with: IT manager/CIO; data protection; law department; corporate communications and PR office; customer service; internal audit; personnel management/human resources; facility management (or physical-safety department); and executive assistant. Fruhlinger observes it’s also worthwhile to cultivate contacts among industry vendors, the intelligence community, and academia.
  • Join a professional organization. Experts in the field suggest Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) and International Security Management Association (ISMA) to provide further networking opportunities.
  • Earn a CISSP (Certification Information System Security Professional) certification or GIAC Information Security Professional certification through Global Information Assurance.
  • Demonstrate your alignment with the business and the organization’s goals. One way to understand that alignment is to identify a mentor who can guide the CSO/CISO in senior management’s expectations. Even better is if this mentor champions the CSO/CISO, asserts Lynn Mattice of risk-management consultancy firm Mattice and Associates and Jerry Brennan of security-executive search firm SMR Group.
  • Look to fill gaps. Since CSOs/CISOs come from a variety of backgrounds, leverage yours in an organization that especially needs it. Whether your background is as an engineer/architect, or manager of security professionals, or you offer a different set of qualifications, chances are you can find a niche as a CSO/CISO, especially because many organizations still don’t have CSOs/CISOs.

CSO/CISO Trends to Watch in 2019

  • The use of ransomware will decline but still be a problem. Organizations are now more alert than in the past to malicious apps intended to block access until the victim pays a ransom, and they have implemented security measures.
  • One ray of sunshine is the positive security environment created as businesses continue their significant migration of data to the cloud in 2019: In addition, cloud-delivered security solutions will be a priority for CSOs/CISOs.
  • Cybersecurity alone will not be enough to secure the most sensitive data or privacy. As Rina Shainski, co-founder and chairwoman of Duality Technologies, puts it: “Data must be protected and enforced by technology itself, not just by cyber or regulation. The very technology compromising our privacy must itself be leveraged to bring real privacy to this data-driven age.”
  • We can anticipate continued nation-state attacks on and surveillance of individuals: State-sponsored threats and high-level hackers continue to relentlessly troll access to the critical infrastructure of nations worldwide.