Not Another Chief Something Officer

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I’ve read the Harvard Business Review for 25 years now, and at no point during that time, has it been as good as it is now under Thomas Stewart’s editorship.

The period before his reign produced a spate of annoying “no, no, no — let ME tell you what strategy is” type articles. Seemed like every article was about the latest [fill in the blank]-based-strategy concept.

But under Stewart, the articles are thought-provoking and relevant. Can’t ask for anything more than that.

Which is not to say that I agree with everything in HBR. Case in point: The Chief Strategy Officer article in the October 2007 issue. The authors (Accenture consultants) studied the CSO role in a number of firms and wrote:

Increased volatility, rapid globalization, the rise of new technologies, and workforce changes have contributed to an environment in which top-down planning needs to be balanced with quick and agile execution. That is why more companies have found it necessary to hire CSOs.”

According to the authors, CSOs must engender commitment to clear strategic plans, drive immediate change, and drive decision making that sustains organizational change.

And who should fill this role? The authors believe it takes someone who is: 1) deeply trusted by the CEO; 2) a master multi-tasker; 3) a jack-of-all-trades; 4) a star player; 5) a doer, not just a thinker; 6) a guardian of horizon two; 7) an influencer, not a dictator; 8 ) comfortable with ambiguity; and 9) objective.

Until they got to the last point, I thought they were talking about me! Yeah, right. And I’m sure that the people who meet this criteria are dime a dozen in your firm, as well.

Unfortunately, what the authors have described is a nearly impossible job, requiring superhuman skills. What they haven’t done is identified the root of the problem — why is there a need for this role in the first place. What they’ve done — and why I call out the fact that they’re consultants — is fall into a trap that many management consultants fall into when they can’t solve a sticky problem: They advocate appointing a Chief Something Officer.

We’ve seen this recently with the Chief eCommerce Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, and Chief Customer Officer. And there lots of reasons why these positions often fail to live up to their expectations (I don’t mean to imply that they’re complete failures in even most cases).

In the case of the Chief Strategy Officer, while the HBR article mentions a number of firms with CSOs, it never really says what impact the role had on those firms, and why it had that impact. And it never identifies why there’s a problem in the first place.

Volatility, globalization, etc. are all certainly factors impacting firms today, but there have always been factors impacting the ability to balance top-down planning and execution.

So what’s the underlying cause for why balancing strategy formulation and execution is so hard? I’ll give you an acronym to help you remember the answer: ANT. Where:

ANT = Ain’t Nobody Talking

Ain’t nobody talking about what the firm’s strategy is (and isn’t), ain’t nobody talking about what assumptions and conflicts are inherent in the strategy, and ain’t nobody talking to each other on a regular basis about how the strategy impacts execution.

A CSO might be able to address some of those issues, but it’s not the only way. Interestingly, preceding the CSO article in the HBR issue was an interview with Jeff Bezos from Amazon who said:

We have a group called the S (Senior) Team that stays abreast of what the company is working on and delves into strategy issues. It meets for about four hours every Tuesday. The key is to ensure that this happens fractally, too, not just at the top. At different scale levels it’s happening everywhere at the company. And the most important thing is that it’s informed by a cultural point of view — we are willing to plant seeds and wait a long time for them to turn into trees.”

The CSO approach is, unfortunately, often a manifestation of the quick-fix, silver-bullet mentality that exists in many firms. The prevailing attitude: “Since we don’t have the discipline to fix the root of the problem, or even figure out what the root of the problem is, let’s just put somebody in charge.”

We don’t need another chief something officer.

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