Chief Strategy Officer

Who is responsible for executing strategy?
The case for appointing a CSO and creating an SEO

Even the most compelling strategy is useless if it isn’t implemented. But in many companies, no one’s driving execution. In one of the courses I taught at Stanford University, I always asked senior managers the question, “who is accountable for the execution of strategy in your organization?” The answer usually varied from no one to everyone.

With all the changes that have occurred in the business landscape recently— financial credit access, global organizational structures, new environmental regulations, the need to innovate quickly—it’s ever more difficult for CEOs, COOs or even CFOs to be on top of everything, even an area as important as strategy execution. To deal with this challenge of executive accountability, companies are now adding a Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) to their management teams (or at least considering doing so).

An article entitled “The Chief Strategy Officer,” published in 2007 by Harvard Business Review, highlights three critical strategy execution tasks that a CSO must handle: articulate a clear definition of your company’s strategy and explain how each person’s work relates to it, facilitate the immediate change initiatives required to execute the strategy, and finally, ensure that strategic decisions don’t get watered down or ignored as they’re translated throughout the organization.

The problem is, carrying out these three primary tasks is no simple process or skill. I have observed that without some form of centralized support or enabling capabilities, even a smart CSO is set up for failure. One potential solution is to establish a Strategy Execution Office (SEO).

An SEO is similar to what developed when the quality movement began years ago. Many organizations established a TQM center of excellence that provided the key organizational know-how, tools, templates, processes, and quality planning facilitators to help other senior managers in their organization begin to build their own capabilities. Eventually, these capabilities matured so that each business unit manager was capable of applying the practices successfully without a centralized support function. (Note: Many of those original quality offices have now become a knowledge warehouse to ensure a continuous process of improvement of the practices that were originally implemented.)

At minimum, a Strategy Execution Office should initially establish and maintain the following capabilities:

  1. A Strategy Execution Map. This one-page map would be developed with the executive team to surface explicit and expected customer/market outcomes, explain how you differentiate against the competition, define the core performance objectives, and identify what initiatives, resources and capabilities must be in place to drive the desired results. The map would provide a consistent story and message of what matters most to the organization to every employee so they know how their jobs (even those that appear menial) have a purpose tied to a bigger picture.
  2. Execution Planning Facilitator. This senior level facilitator works cross-functionally to ensure a standard approach for the foundational planning process of every major initiative, program or project portfolio. The strategic facilitator integrates the necessary project planning and execution disciplines with the appropriate level of change management process required. This integrated planning will substantially reduce the amount time the organization spends in the implementation planning phase by surfacing the key obstacles to execution and change leadership. Depending on how much change the organizational strategy demands, this facilitation could easily be the most important function of the SEO (and the senior management team) in reducing the risks to execution.
  3. A Day-to-Day Strategic Decision Framework. Given the level of uncertainty we are experiencing in today’s economic climate, the ability to understand the components of good decision-making is more important than ever. The SEO would help create the decision process guidelines and the decision roles of management and staff in the strategy execution phases. I call this the strategic decision governance “RACI” chart — R=who is responsible, A= who is accountable, C= who must be consulted, and I= who must be informed. This decision responsibility information combined with education on how to think strategically sets the groundwork for a strategic decision framework. The goal is to ensure all management teams to can debate issues and opportunities of both execution and operations by following a set of issue resolution principles and strategic prioritization criteria. One of the most important outcomes is enabling project and management teams to make good decisions quickly. The investment in improving decision-making competency is one of highest-return activities an organization can undertake, because it creates value at minimal cost.

While I believe a CSO can add value in an organization, the multi-faceted skills and discipline required to execute an enterprise or business unit strategy go beyond what one person can master in a career. Therefore, start a small Strategy Execution Office and build the ability to better execute your current strategy, as well as building competency across the management team so your enterprise does not become dependent on any single person for its success.

Just make sure there is someone in the execution driver’s seat to keep your strategy on course.

By William Malek

Since 1991, Strategy2Reality LLC has helped both small and major companies around the world successfully convert their vision and strategic business plans into measurable results. Call us now at 1-650-387-3036 or e-mail
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