These days, the C-suite seems to add new team members almost every day.
Some roles have grown out of necessity; the CMO, CIO, CHRO all play vital roles in today’s business ecosystem.
Some rose to prominence, then disappeared just as quickly (we hardly knew you, CDO.) And some, let’s be honest, feel a bit contrived.
Good on you, Chief Happiness Officers and Chief Listeners, but I’m not convinced those roles are here to stay. I’m in a good place to judge. I recently took one of these new-fangled C-level positions.
I am a Chief Strategy Officer. At first blush, this may sound trendy. It may sound redundant. It may sound silly (thanks, Forbes.) It is none of the above.
The Chief Strategy Officer takes the 30,000-foot view every day, on every project. While other employees, from staff to the CEO, manage day-to-day tasks and fight fires, run quarterly projections and year-over-year metrics, the CSO ensures that each decision, no matter the size, aligns to an overall corporate strategy focused on the future.
As a CSO, here are seven things I do, and why they matter.
Drive the Long-Term Vision
I am responsible for the five-year plan, both the overarching vision and how we will get there. The plan outlines what products we will deliver, how we will sell them, what sales channels we will use, what projects/products/priorities we will drop, and how the financials will balance out. It is, in a nutshell, how we will make money, and where we will not make money. Not this quarter, or next year, but in the long run.
Keep Everyone Aligned
If our end goal is to arrive in Hawaii, we need to go west from HQ in Denver. Sure, there may be a zig or zag here or there, a jaunt north or south to pick up supplies, but ultimately, all roads must head into the sunset. Keeping everyone moving west is my job. Officially, this is called corporate cohesion. It allows everyone in the company to function both as a unit and individually. If you want to empower people, tell them where they are going and when you want to get there, then trust them to participate in the “how.” That direction and empowerment fall on me.
Balance the Portfolio
As a big picture leader, it’s my job to understand, manage, and advise on what’s growing, what’s generating cash, and where we should be investing R&D resources to create our next cash cow. Do we innovate around pricing strategies, bundling techniques, or packaging? How do we grow beyond the sales function? This perspective depends on a 360-degree view, and on a detachment from ownership. No one wants to admit their baby is ugly or should be sidelined. I am an objective strategist so that we can make the hard and innovative decisions around growing our business.
Cross-functional collaboration is the crux of the CSO role. A wide variety of positions report to my team, from business analysts, finance, customer success, and current and future products. That diversity engenders some automatic cross-functional flow in and of itself. But to gain and sustain the 30,000-foot view, I foster trusting relationships with each of the functional leaders.
My peers in the C-suite, the CFO, CIO, CMO, must place a laser focus on their vertical. It’s my responsibility to soak up that expertise, then rotate it for a new perspective. While functional leaders execute against immediate KPIs, I ask the what-ifs and what-could-be's that open the window wider.
Find the Gems
As a result of that cross-functional visibility, I get to discover the employees that are going above and beyond to drive the company’s success. A huge part of delivering against a long-term vision and strategy is having the right people in the right roles.
A CSO should extrapolate his or her intimate knowledge of the big picture into how the organization’s current stars can help make it a reality. Bring people under your wing. Broaden horizons. Encourage cross-pollination so that everyone grows, and brings old knowledge and new eyes to each project.
The Chief Strategy Officer role only functions in lock-step with top leadership. If the CSO isn’t directly empowered by the CEO, he or she will fail. That doesn’t mean blindly pursuing the leadership’s pet projects. Instead, it’s carte blanche to ask every question and challenge every norm, even when it’s not popular or politically prudent. The leadership must have your back, but when they do, those tough questions get asked and answered.
More than education or experience, curiosity is the most critical trait that a CSO must possess. You need a burning desire to understand what’s working, why, how, with and for and in spite of whom. Non-linear thinking is a tremendous benefit. What happens if we scribble outside these lines? As is the familiarity and language to interact knowledgeably and comfortably with almost anyone in the organization.
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Nowhere are all of these activities more important than in growth organizations. If you’re not thinking about what’s next, you’re already dead in the water. CSOs provide the structure and backbone for innovation.
When growth isn’t as easy as it used to be, when you’re suddenly juggling multiple product lines or markets, when the gamble didn’t pay off that’s when a Chief Strategy Officer steps in. You know you need to get to Hawaii. The CSO makes sure you get there.