Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

What do C level officers do? 5: the Chief Strategy Officer

Posted in career development, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on October 12, 2014

This is my fifth posting to a series on what C level officers of a business or organization do, that specifically emerge as job requirements for the senior leadership of an organization (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3, postings 376 and following for Parts 1-4.)

When I wrote about Chief Financial Officer (CFO) roles and responsibilities and about how CFOs work coordinately with other executives in Part 2 of this series, pretty much anyone reading this would have at least a basic outline understanding as to what these professionals do. They manage and oversee cash flow, budgets and liquidity available to the organization and oversee the systematic documentation of all of this, and they hold responsibility over tax filings and payments and a range of other money-related activities. The How of all of this might seem complex and opaque operationally and it does to many. But the basic What of this at least in broad outline is fairly clear and well understood.

When I wrote of the closely related positions of Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in Part 3 and Part 4 I did so fully expecting most any reader to have a fairly clear idea as to what these managers and executives do too, at least in broad outline.

I turn here in this installment to consider an increasingly important executive team position that is at least as of this writing a lot less familiar to many: the Chief Strategy Officer (CSO, or for purposes of this series and with at least one upcoming installment in mind the strategy-CSO.) So I at least begin this posting by outlining something of what this officer does and how and why, and how this position fits into business and organizational systems. And I will start small to put this discussion into perspective, and with businesses that would not need this type of executive officer. I will then build up from there to discuss how a strategy-CSO can address emerging needs.

Startups and early stage businesses of necessity have very low headcounts and simple tables of organization. And the same holds for essentially any small owner run business, no matter how long-standing it has been in ongoing operations. Communications are direct and both strategic decision making and its operational implementation tend to be direct and from a central owner/manager source for all of these businesses.

As businesses grow in scale and organizational complexity, and as what started as single perhaps wider-ranging job descriptions for small numbers of staff are split out into more specialized roles, this type of direct line of sight communication and managerial oversight becomes more and more difficult. Specialized teams begin to form with their own managers and functional areas split off into distinctly separate table of organization designated services and departments. And strategic planning has to become more complex if this wider range of hands-on specialists and managers are to continue to actively work in support of the business’ overall goals and priorities and the strategy laid out for reaching them.

The highest level strategic planning that determines overall goals and priories and approaches for achieving them come from the overall management of this business. In that, essentially all real decision making power and authority might reside in the hands of one single owner or a single chief executive officer (CEO), or this role might be shared by that person and the members of a senior executive team that is comprised of functional area specialist senior managers ( e.g. the CFO, a Chief Operations Officer (COO – also called a Chief Operating Officer), a CIO or CTO and others.) And this person or group determines overall business strategy. And at least in principle the lead managers for each of the departmental or other major branches on the table of organization bring this insight back to their own teams and they hold responsibility for making sure that their areas of operational responsibility and their departmental level strategy connects into and supports this larger organizing vision. But in practice, with scale of business and complexity of operations and strategy, this approach can break down leading to gaps and inconsistencies.

This can happen in a single business that simply grows our organically. It can be all but certain to develop when and as larger businesses merge and acquire, bringing in what amount to entire new operational and strategic systems and new and different corporate cultures that mesh with them. And that is where the Chief Strategy Officer enters this narrative. The strategy-CSO does not in general set overall policy, thought they often offer significant and even vital insight in developing a business-wide strategic vision and understanding by offering insight as to what can most effectively be implemented and made to work. Their job is to:

• Take the higher-level business-wide strategic vision and translate and expand that out to the departmental and lower levels within the organization, so that their operations and their more locally defined strategy conforms with and supports it, and
• Enforce overall business-wide strategy and adherence to overall goals and priorities set by the executive suite.
• And they work with managers at multiple levels throughout the organization, to help them both understand the overall business and how their efforts fit into it and to help them secure the resources that they need in order to more effectively support the business at this level.

Think of the strategy-CSO as being a strategy trouble shooter and enabler. And while doing this they have to thread their way between the Scylla and Charybdis of coming across as an enforcer and just saying “no” on the one side, and of seeming to play favorites and allowing questionable strategy deviation accommodations on the other. A good strategy-CSO has to be thoroughly grounded in the business as a whole and in all of its functional and operational areas, as well as in its overall and more locally applicable, department level strategies. They need to be a generalist, but one with some real in-depth understanding of each of the key functional areas of the business. And at least ideally they would know and understand something of the functional area languages and dialects that they departmental level specialists use in the course of their work – their fellow C level executives included.

To cite and at least briefly explore some of the sources of complication that can arise in that, a strategy-CSO has as one of their core long-term responsibilities a goal of identifying non-productive and overall efficiency-blocking silo walls, where departments or other units within a business in effect take off on their own, and both operationally and strategically. This means identifying and taking remediative action where walls form that create operational disconnects or bottlenecks, or inefficient functional duplications that cannot be fully justified by ongoing need. And I specifically note here that when this type of silo wall forms within a business that almost always means there are underlying business-wide strategic disconnects too.

But at the same time a strategy CSO has to think, plan and act in terms of preserving value for the organization where that can mean explicitly allowing for and supporting both operational and strategic, and I add corporate culture independence too. I have seen, to note a situation where I have seen this break down, businesses acquire small lean new businesses that hold resources and capabilities that are essential to the acquiring business’ future – but where their leadership’s drive to enforce business-wide conformity have literally crushed the sources of new value that these acquisitions were brought in to provide. A good strategy-CSO needs to know when to enforce standards and company-wide consistency and when and where to encourage and foster independence and diversity. And they need to know how to do this in ways that bring more buy-in than resistance. That is not always possible, let alone easy; a good strategy-CSO needs to be tactful but very, very persistent.

I was originally planning on turning to consider the other CSO position next: the Chief Security Officer (security-CSO). After that, in a seventh series installment I was going to focus on the Chief Operations Officer. But for a variety of reasons I am going to discuss the roles of the COO next and will then consider this second CSO-titled position. Then, as noted at the end of Part 4 I will look into the position of Chief of Marketing and Communications Officer and its variations.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide.

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