The McKinsey Quarterly recently gathered a roundtable of CSOs from high-profile companies to speak about the complexities of their roles and the future relevance of the CSO. Dan Simpson, vice president and chairman of Clorox and a veteran of 16 years as head of strategy for the company, felt that the ''role of the CSO is poorly defined.'' He also noted that many things affect the role of the CSO, the prime one being ''the style of the CEO, the true chief strategy officer.''
When the Quarterly queried the panelists regarding how the company’s performance affects the role of the CSO, Simpson replied that ''performance changes the issue set and not the role.'' He further said that when nearly everyone is focused on short-term fixes to stem performance shortfalls, the CSO has to be an ''advocate of long-term health.''
Annabel Spring, managing director in charge of strategy and execution at Morgan Stanley, who was also present at the roundtable, agreed with Simpson, saying that the market does affect the sorts of actions the CSO must take. She said that when the market is strong, the CSO has to focus on long-term strategies, while when the market is down, the CSO has to focus a lot on restructuring the company.
Many observers and analysts feel that the primary role of a strategist is to form a robust organization design. Many feel that as the nature of strategy has changed over the years, successful execution of strategies depends increasingly on sound, effective, and brisk decision making. Mark Buthman, CFO of Kimberly-Clark, noted in an interview for an article on accenture.com that due to the unique positioning and experience of the CSO, he or she is able to offer perspectives and ask questions that other C-level executives don’t dare to. Buthman also noted, however, that the CSO must ensure that he or she maintains the right market focus and does not stall the company’s strategic initiatives.
Various companies are adding CSOs as their CEOs become increasingly burdened with the need to be on top of everything. Many analysts feel that the CEO needs another executive to be on hand to share the workload, and that the COO and CFO cannot handle the role of chief strategist because there would be considerable risk in assigning and delegating the oversight of strategy to them. Accordingly, many firms, including Accenture, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Hyperion Solutions Corporation, and Cognos, have already added CSOs to their executive teams.
Although the benefits of bringing on a CSO are many, doing so is not without its challenges. Finding someone who is an all-rounder with the skills and experience needed to develop strategy, translate it for people across functions and business units, and drive organizational change can be a tall order. Executive recruiters confirm that it is often frustrating to search for a good CSO because doing so typically takes longer than it does to recruit a CEO.
A strong relationship with the CEO is one of the key ingredients of success for any CSO. CSOs are generally given great authority to manage the company and to tackle new challenges. Hence, there needs to be a great deal of trust between the CEO and the CSO. The chief strategy officer should also be a jack-of-all-trades and a master at handling multiple tasks.
It’s easy to misjudge the role of the CSO as this executive is not quite the hard-core strategist that the title suggests. CSOs are basically seasoned professionals with a keen strategic insight who have worn many hats before donning the present one.