Why the hell do you need a Chief Strategy Officer?

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Here’s something I’ve absolutely never understood: the Chief Strategy Officer.

Let’s run through this pretty quickly. First, you need to understand the numbers here. From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, the average size of the executive team — i.e. the C-Suite — doubled, from 5 to 10. So in the mid-1980s, it was probably:

  • CEO
  • CFO
  • COO
  • CMO
  • Maybe one more

Now there’s five new roles, and I guarantee you one of them is Chief Strategy Officer at a lot of places.

At the same time, we do a ton of chest-thumping about entrepreneurship and innovation, right? But U.S. companies are actually becoming more bureaucratic, and majorly so.

My man Peter Drucker wrote in Harvard Business Review back in 1988 that companies would start to get lean, hack middle managers, and the like. In the last 30 years, we’ve actually moved in the opposite direction. Middle management should be dying, but it’s thriving.

And now we get to the Chief Strategy Officer. Well, we will in a second.

Chief Strategy Officer: What about the pros of increased bureaucracy?

There are some. Most middle managers will breathlessly claim that they “do the work” while executives sit in meetings and rank-and-files can’t be trusted. (The amount of distrust in a given office could choke a horse, by the way. It’s awesome.) In reality, most middle managers are digital paper-pushers who essentially also sit in meetings all day, but you do whatever you gotta do to prove your worth, right? We’re all just out here trying to be loved and rewarded. Someone hug me.

Per research from Bain, an average company with a $5B valuation has 9–14 layers between the CEO and the lowest level. That’s a lot of bureaucracy. All the people in the middle are claiming they really do the work, but increased bureaucracy usually means:

I don’t see many pros to increased bureaucracy, but hell … maybe that’s why I’m not a Chief Strategy Officer, yea?

So what’s so annoying specifically about a Chief Strategy Officer?

Um, so … um, like, isn’t strategy the responsibility of all executives? If you have a “Chief Strategy Officer,” then what exactly is the CEO doing? You know that Trump-Kasich story? Trump’s sons call up Kasich and offer him VP vetting. They tell him, “You’ll be leading foreign and domestic.” Kasich’s people are like, “What will Trump do?” (pause) “He’ll make America great again.” Comical, right?

That’s the same thing as having a Chief Strategy Officer. You’re telling me the CFO doesn’t have a financial strategy? The COO ain’t chasing an operational strategy? Everyone with a high salary needs to at least pretend to own strategy in some respect.

Inserting a “Chief Strategy Officer” is a joke. It’s a role for the sake of a role. Honestly, in most places this guy is probably a spreadsheet jockey. He probably manages a Google Doc of various “strategies” that everyone forgets to contribute to, which makes him seethe with anger on a hourly basis. Ah, “The Spreadsheet Mentality.”

The dirty little secret of why you have a Chief Strategy Officer

Politics, baby. It’s very easy.

We think work is about “growth” or “being innovative” or a handful of other bullshit. It’s not. People want like-minded individuals working on tasks that the in-group perceive as important. It’s not rocket science.

You have a Chief Strategy Officer because some guy has been at your company 11 years, there’s no real logical next step for him, but he’s buddy-buddy with the execs. So they mint him. They all know he’ll do absolutely nothing as Chief Strategy Officer and that every silo will set their own strategy, just as it has been for decades, but whatever. Reward your friends.

Like-minded individuals working together. That’s why the C-Suite went from 5 to 10 in about 20–30 years. Get your bros up here and give ’em the sweet salary too. Who cares if the role is meaningless?

This is why you have a Chief Fun Officer too, by the way.

A funny story about the role of Chief Strategy Officer

Had a job once. Company was privately-held. CEO was the son of the founder. Very family-oriented deal in some ways. The CEO was everything in this place. Any time someone gave you a project, they would say (no joke) “CEO’s name says this is urgent.” I had that said to me 44 different times per week. It was a running joke among some of my colleagues.

Basically, at this joint, whatever the CEO said/thought was the strategy. It was that simple. There was no way even remotely around this.

Of course, at some point this dude anoints someone as Chief Strategy Officer.

Now, I only worked at this place about 17 months — and I didn’t do much with this guy, the Chief Strategy Officer. But — and I ain’t kidding you here — twice I got e-mails from him asking what type of sandwich I wanted at a lunch-type deal.

Chief Strategy Officer.

“Is the Pepe from Jimmy John’s OK, sir?”

It’s a flippin’ joke.

The bigger problem of the Chief Strategy Officer

You look at stuff like Trump and Brexit and there’s a prevailing sense of “us vs. them” in the world. Some people are channeling it well. Some are not. When you work at a place that’s clearly just elevating the friends of the already-powerful to similar roles, well, that sucks.

So the “5 to 10” C-Suiters stat, and the rise of a Chief Strategy Officer in general, are kind of broadly troubling about how most are perceiving work these days.

There are lots of reasons for the oft-cited 13% workforce engagement globally stat, but this is one of them. The rich get richer, and some moron who sat in meetings all week for seven years suddenly becomes the Chief Strategy Officer. Who would be engaged at a place like that?

Other thoughts?

My name’s Ted Bauer. Let’s get after it.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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