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What makes a great Chief Strategy Officer?

June 1, 2015 Mark Hannum

A recent story in HBR about the role of a chief strategy officer written by Michael Birshan, Emma Gibbs, and Kurt Strovink provides great insight into how CSOs and organizations can craft flexible, comprehensive strategies. But it also got me thinking about what makes a great Chief Strategy Officer. I believe they must bring a wide variety of talents to the role, but first and foremost, great CSOs are usually:

Competitive: They have to keep track of the competition, the industry, the marketplace of customers, and of course the economy. They must be able to think long and think short. Most importantly they have to be able to put all of these factors together dynamically. In other words, they must see how all of these factors interact and impact each other.

Collaborative: The paradox of the CSO role is that no one human being can keep track of all of the factors involved in making strategy. It goes against the whole image of the lone wolf strategist, but truly outstanding CSOs bring people together to leverage their perspective and their talents. Successful CSOs have two teams: the team they manage, and the team that they are on….the executive team. CSOs must have the capacity to bring people together and bring their different perspectives to a deliberate set of activities and actions. Further, the team they manage must bring a strong diversity of skill sets and capabilities—a team that thinks differently and communicates effectively. Having the ability to identify and select talent and then manage that band of different instruments truly requires a maestro of teams.

Adaptable: Finding an individual who has the contradictory talents of competing and collaborating is difficult enough….but the best CSOs also are able to innovate and adapt. They find the way. They marry the talents that got them to the executive team with an innate ability to adapt and innovate.

Open to feedback: The best CSOs are constantly scanning the environment for feedback. They are always looking for the tiny little bits of information that will give them the confidence to decide that the activities and actions they have devised as a strategy are or just as importantly are not working.

Able to keep things elegantly simple: They will know the difference between what is really working and what isn’t adding real value. I’ve always personally loved the word “elegance.” The truly great CSO helps his or her organization to understand the elegant formula for success. They can pare things down to the most essential actions. In other words, they focus on the activities and actions that truly work (or course-correct quickly). No wasted motion. No wasted dollars.

Much of what I’ve said can apply to many senior-level roles. And nearly every successful CSO, and for that matter, every successful person I’ve ever met has developed a core set of values or philosophies that they stand for unequivocally. In life, they are the person you want as your parent, your spouse, your family, your partner. I won’t go into too many allusions here, but in the final analysis, to say that the CSO (and every member of the C-suite) must be capable of keeping an organization and the people in it on a valued path is an understatement.

What do you think? Are there qualities or capabilities you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts with us below.

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