How to Make a Chief Strategy Officer Fit into Your Organization

Don Tennant
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Tensions Between IT and Business Leadership Force New Approach to Delivering Technology

Last week, I wrote a post that addressed the question of whether CIOs need the help of a chief strategy officer (CSO). Let’s say your company decides to give the CSO idea a shot. What do you look for, and how does this person best fit into the corporate hierarchy?

In my interview with Patrick J. Stroh, a Prior Lake, Minn.-based business consultant who wrote about CSOs in his book, “Business Strategy: Plan, Execute, Win!” Stroh explained that whether a CSO operates within or outside the traditional reporting structure depends on the needs of the CEO:

The preponderance of the CSOs that I’ve seen typically report to a president or CEO. Whether they would have direct reports, depends. It almost harkens back to a corporate development-type role, where they’re looking at the market and competitors, seeing who they should target for acquisition, and so forth. And they can be in charge of the business strategy. Now, I think that role is OK, but I think what they actually should have is some functional responsibility, as well. In this case, what I’m talking about is product development, innovation, and, potentially, marketing. Because if you think about the cycles of product development, it’s really akin to what a chief strategist needs to do. Plus, that gives them a lab to operate in, rather than just being in an ivory tower, pontificating strategy, but not having any operational responsibilities. So it’s a role that can be whatever the CEO needs, as far as where they have gaps in the organization.


I asked Stroh under what circumstances a CSO is more of a hindrance than a help. He said when it becomes too bureaucratic:

No disrespect to Harvard, but if he comes in with a Harvard-like attitude of “here is the business strategy model we need to incorporate,” and he doesn’t know the business and only knows theory, the best plan in the world doesn’t take a hill. Execution takes the hill. So if it’s too bureaucratic, and there’s no functional responsibility, and he doesn’t understand the industry, that person is just going to muddy the works.

And under what circumstances is a CSO simply not needed? Stroh said that can be the case in smaller companies:

It also depends on whether I’ve got one product, or I’ve got a portfolio of 50 products. Let’s just assume that a smaller company has one or two products—that chief executive officer can probably serve as the CSO. It’s when you start getting bigger, and having multiple direct reports, and multiple functional areas with several hundred people in each one—that’s really when the CEO needs help, and needs to put someone full-time on it.

I asked Stroh whether women tend to have any particular strengths that make them especially good candidates for a CSO role. He responded in terms of the importance of emotional intelligence:

I believe a CSO has to have very high EQ, otherwise he or she is going to start running over people, or get run over if it isn’t done in a facilitative way. Having said that, the best CEO I ever worked for was one of the smartest people I ever worked for—she had EQ off the chart. She knew how to build relationships, how to get people to do stuff—people would lie down in front of buses for her. It may be a stereotype, but women tend to be better at that. They tend to be better at building relationships, helping people solve problems, and gaining loyalty and trust. Plus, women are probably a little less threatening. If you have a CSO who happens to be a male, and he’s coming in kind of hard-charging, it’s like, “Oh God, this guy is trying to take my job.” If that’s a woman, it’s a little less threatening.

Separately from our discussion, Stroh compiled a list of eight traits to look for in a CSO:

  1. Master of multitasking: They must be capable of quickly switching between environments and activities. Many handle an average of 10 major, diverse, business functions and activities at once.
  2. Jack of all trades: Most strategy execs have had significant line management and functional experience in such areas as technology, management, marketing, and operations.
  3. Star player: Most CSOs achieved impressive business results earlier in their careers and view the strategy role as a launching pad, not a landing pad.
  4. Doer, not just a thinker: Although they split the job between strategy development and execution, their bias must be toward the latter.
  5. Good handle on short- and long-term issues: The medium term (one to four years out) can go unattended, however. CSOs must focus the organization's attention here, the critical period of strategy execution.
  6. Influencer, not a dictator: CSOs don't succeed by pulling rank. They sway others with their deep industry knowledge, their organizational connections, and their ability to communicate effectively, not using the cover of "the CEO wants to do..."
  7. Comfortable with ambiguity: All executives today must exhibit this trait, especially the CSO, whose actions typically won't pay off for years. The role tends to evolve rapidly and requires an extraordinary ability to embrace an uncertain future.
  8. Objectivity: Given their broad role, CSOs can't play favorites. Openly partisan CSOs, or those who let emotions or the strengths of other personalities cloud their vision, are sure to fail.


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