What is a Chief Strategy Officer? Outlook, Education, Career Path 🚀

So, you want to become a chief strategy officer? You’ll be among an up-and-coming group of professionals representing a shift in the way corporations are thinking about business strategy. This broad, dynamic, and well-paid position will have you handling some of the highest-level tasks in the company.

As the business world gets faster and more complex thanks to technology, many CEOs don’t have time to stay on top of it all. Yet, strategy is more important than ever. As the CSO, you’ll oversee the company’s strategic initiatives. You’ll enjoy a lot power and responsibility, so we’ve created the ultimate guide on how to become a competent, qualified CSO. 

You’ll discover things like:

  • What responsibilities you can expect
  • The education and skills you’ll need
  • How the CSO differs from other C-suite roles

By the time you’re through, you’ll have a solid understanding of this unique role and will know exactly what to expect as you embark on the path to becoming one. Let’s dive in!

What is a Chief Strategy Officer (CSO)?

The CSO, or chief strategist, is the executive who oversees the development, communication of, and execution of a corporation’s strategic initiatives. In other words, you’ll work with your CEO to create an overall corporate strategy that produces long-term, sustainable success for your company. 

Corporate strategy used to be the primary responsibility of the CEO. However, most CEOs already have their hands full with being ultimately responsible for everything that happens in the business. Likewise, the business landscape has become more complex with the rise of new organizational structures, increased regulations, and rapid globalization. These have put a strain on companies’ ability to innovate and made strategy even more important. Yet, CEOs have less time to devote to it than ever before.

As a CSO, your job will be to support the CEO’s creation of an overall corporate strategy. Let’s look a little more closely at what that looks like.

What Does a Chief Strategist Do? Key Responsibilities

What does a CSO look like in action? It’s this: 

It’s Monday, and you’re sitting in a meeting with the CEO plus other executives discussing a new line of products the CEO wants to launch. Your CEO believes that this will help position the company to tap into a new market. However, as you’re reviewing the plans, you notice something: your CEO doesn’t seem to be aware of a competitor who tried this exact strategy just a few months ago. It failed miserably. You speak up and throw out a few alternative ideas for your CEO to consider.

That’s just one snapshot of what a chief strategist does, but it encompasses many of the key responsibilities of a CSO. Those include:

  • Providing insights and advice on the CEO’s strategy
  • Identifying market conditions and determining their impact on strategy
  • Overseeing the execution of any strategic plans
  • Driving decision-making that leads to sustainable growth
  • Facilitating the development of key strategic initiatives
  • Supporting inclusive planning processes and communication between teams, other executives, and stakeholders
  • Tackling various high-impact initiatives that may change the course of the company

Who Reports to a Chief Strategy Officer?

According to Deloitte, a CSO may be described as: “responsible for nothing and accountable for everything.” In other words, unlike a CFO or a CTO, you won’t necessarily have a defined domain within the organization. Rather, if an initiative surfaces that will impact the company’s position in the future, you’ll have a role in it.

That means you’ll need to get ready to form relationships with the leadership of the organization. On any given project, you may find yourself working with:

  • Your fellow executives
  • Directors and other high-level management
  • Department heads
  • Project managers

Who Does the Chief Strategy Officer Report To?

According to a 2020 survey by Deloitte, 69 percent of CSOs report directly to the CEO. However, you may report to the COO as well. That’s more likely to occur if your CEO spends a significant amount of time as the public face of the company. In that case, you’ll work with the COO to develop and execute initiatives and corporate strategy.

Chief Strategy Officer Career Outlook

Chief strategists used to be an odd role that many CEOs didn’t understand because they handled company strategy themselves. In 2020, that perception is changing. At least 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies now have a CSO heading their strategic planning.

Consider Young Sohn, the CSO of Samsung. He’s helped the electronics giant redefine what he refers to as its operating rhythms to better embrace the future of a hyper-digital world.

Deloitte’s survey notes that the CSO role has existed for less than five years in 39 percent of the organizations that responded. That just shows how many companies are embracing this role. If you’re aiming to someday become a chief strategist, now is the perfect time to start preparing to be a competent and effective strategist. As Steven Goldbach – the CSO of Deloitte – notes, you’ll one day play a role in helping a company make challenging, pragmatic strategy choices. 

Chief Strategy Officer Salary Statistics

Ready to make bank? Chief strategy officers are well paid. According to PayScale, the average salary for a CSO in 2020 was $185,539 per year. The top 10 percent of CSOs earn as much as $297,000 per year. 

Two things influence your compensation: your experience and your specific skills. Let’s look at both.

What Sort of Experience Do Most CSOs Have?

According to PayScale, most CSOs come into the role once they are “experienced” or “late” in their career. That translates to ten to 20 years of professional experience. Deloitte agrees, noting that 66 percent of CSOs have over 15 years of professional experience, while some 44 percent have been at it for over 20 years.

What sort of professional experience? Expect your competition to have plenty of demonstrated expertise in things like:

  • People and project management
  • Business administration
  • Marketing
  • Finance

You’ll need similar expertise to become a chief strategy officer. We’ll talk about that next.

What Skills Can Increase Your Salary?

CSOs with a good sense of corporate governance and leadership are in greatest demand. In 2020, PayScale noted that these skills could increase a candidate’s compensation:

Chief Strategy Officer Skills & Qualifications

As the chief strategist, you’ll be involved with many different parts of the company to ensure that initiatives stay on track. As a result, it’s more important to develop a well-rounded foundation of skills for operating at a very high level than it is to develop specific technical expertise. We recommend that you focus on:

  • Leadership skills. You’ll spend a lot of time leading project management, supervising other strategists, and working with your executive colleagues to guide the organization. Make sure you’ve got your leadership fundamentals down. 
  • Strategy. Business strategy is a sought-after skill in chief strategists. We recommend that you learn blue ocean strategy to create the best visions and guide your organization. 
  • Management. If you aren’t already adept at managing teams and people, make sure you get up to speed as quickly as possible. 
  • Data. Business intelligence is a data-driven skill, and companies want their chief strategists to be able to do it. Learn the foundations of data analysis like one-variable statistics so you can make thoughtful, informed, data-driven decisions.

What Degrees Do I Need to Be a Chief Strategy Officer?

You will need an advanced degree to secure this role. While your bachelor’s degree can range from business to law or even the liberal arts, the top executives of most large corporations have an MBA. 

If you’re still choosing your bachelor’s degree, we recommend aiming for a business degree. That will help you start developing the foundation that you need to become a chief strategy officer.

The Best MBA for a CSO 

MBAs are increasingly common among the ranks of top executives, and that includes chief strategists. An MBA will provide you with the deep business skills and abilities that you’ll need to guide an organization effectively. However, people who have their sights set on an executive role specifically may want to consider pursuing an executive MBA, or EMBA, instead.

An EMBA differs from an MBA in that the courses and electives you take are more geared toward corporate strategy and governance. You’ll still learn all the business fundamentals that you need, but you’ll also gain additional skills for the board room. 

Many EMBA programs, like the one at Quantic, also let you specialize in areas including advanced corporate strategy or data analysis. That can give you a competitive edge in a world where MBAs are becoming the norm and help tip you for the role.

Another consideration for choosing an MBA program involves whether an online or traditional MBA is right for you. Each has its advantages:

  • An online MBA lets you keep working while earning the credentials you need on a schedule that works for you.
  • A traditional MBA provides structure and focus and is still well regarded in the business world.

Either way you go, make sure your choice offers a career network to help you develop your professional connections.

The Chief Strategy Officer Resume

Ever wonder what a chief strategy officer’s resume looks like? They’re intense. Typically, they:

  • Are action-oriented. Expect to see lots of bullet points with responsibilities and accomplishments.
  • Put experience first, skills second. They’ll be able to demonstrate what they’ve done, but also talk about what else they can do.
  • Only list the most advanced degrees attained. Unless they’ve also got an MBA, you’ll typically only see the most advanced degree listed. Take note of this if you’ve got a bachelor’s degree that isn’t in the business field.
  • Only list related skills and experience. Got a lot of irrelevant stuff and odd jobs on your resume? Time to clean it up and show that you’re ready to be a CSO.

Here are two great examples of what yours might look like one day:

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MintResume

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VelvetJobs.

The CSO vs. COO

You might have noticed that the CSO sounds a little bit like the COO. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why some CEOs question the need for one in the first place. However, the two roles are different for two main reasons:

  • The CSO is consultative while the COO is executive. As a CSO, you’ll be asked for advice more frequently than the COO. In contrast, the COO will more frequently take charge of implementing and executing operations.
  • The CSO is future-oriented while the COO is present-oriented. The COO focuses on day-to-day operations, but you’ll be primarily concerned with where the company is going in the long run.

Being a Chief Strategy Officer for a Startup vs. Corporation

The chief strategist is much more common in large corporations, where the CEO may not have the time to manage the company strategy as much as they might. This position can take 10 to 15 years to attain and typically involves working your way up the ranks within the same company. (According to Harvard Business Review, 85 percent of CSOs are hired internally.)

Chief strategy officers less frequently appear in startups as the CEO typically takes on the role. However, a CSO can play a critical role in a startup if the CEO isn’t confident at taking the strategic lead. Often, you’ll see the role labeled “Chief Growth Officer (CGO)” to reflect the startup’s growth as a strategic priority. 

If you want to become a chief strategist/CGO of a startup, begin developing your career network as early as possible to make the right connections as you pursue your MBA. Look to connect with someone who’s got a vision that interests you, but who needs a strategist at their back to execute it.

Summary: Next Steps to Become a Chief Strategy Officer

The chief strategy officer is a vital but misunderstood role – we’ve hopefully cleared things up a little bit. Unlike other C-suite roles, the CSO is unique in that it doesn’t have a “domain” like finance, technology, or marketing. That can make it a difficult role to understand. The CSO is best understood as a position that supports the CEO. Simply put, if it involves the direction that the company is headed, you can count on being called for your advice. 

We’ve covered everything you need to know to prepare for such a dynamic and broad role in a corporation. From the skills you need to insights on the best MBA to pursue, you’re now equipped to strategize your next move to become a chief strategy officer. Still got questions? Leave a comment below and we’ll be happy to share some insights.