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What is the role of the Chief Strategy Officer (CSO)?

5 strategies to succeed as a Chief Strategy Officer

What does it take to climb the corporate ladder and become a c-level executive?

I have worked with senior executives and read about their journeys in books and Harvard Business Review, but I am still not able to answer this question tactically.

I imagine I may not be the only one interested in learning more about how to become a Chief Executive. The main goal of the series How I Lead - Office Hours with the C-Suite is to demystify the path to the top executive team through informal conversations with who succeeded in the journey.

The first event was a fireside chat with Soumik Chatterjee, Chief Strategy Officer at Petco.

You can watch the full event organized by the University of Michigan Alumni Club of Silicon valley here.

Key takeaways from the event:

1. What it takes to become a CSO

Soumik listed four controllable factors and one uncontrollable factor that were very important for his career development and success.

The uncontrollable factor is around opportunities and coincidences that present themselves in one's career path.

The four controllable factors are:

1. Understanding what you are good at and what you like to do

Starting his career in management consulting, Soumik had strategy roles in various industries. When building a Venn diagram to reflect on what he likes to do and what he is good at, he realized he likes defining long-term strategies and the problem-solving aspect of it.

As a Chief Strategy Officer, Soumik leads strategic planning and mergers & acquisitions.

2. Identifying a place that will provide opportunities to grow doing what you like

Soumik researched companies that were looking to grow, disrupt, and lead in their industry or category.

When evaluating the management team, he looked for chief executive officers (CEO) who were committed to driving growth.

3. Finding great people to work with

Although it's not possible to like the entire company, Soumik mentioned that you should like the vast majority of people you work with.

Being your managers, peers or subordinates, you should respect them, enjoy working with them, and learn from them.
What it takes to become a Chief Strategy Officer
To succeed as a C-Level, work with people you really like

4. Delivering more than expected of you

When everyone around you is doing 100% of what is expected from them, you stand out when delivering 110%. Soumik mentioned that going above and beyond what was expected of him helped his career development.

Although he didn't have a clear career development planning to become a CSO, he had a growth mindset, worked hard in an area that he loves - corporate strategy - and managed the twists and turns of his career to get to the top.

2. Building strong relationships with senior leaders is key to succeed

Preparing well to talk to different stakeholders has helped Soumik to build trustful relationships.

Here are the type of questions that help him to better understand other stakeholders:

  • Who are they, what's their background?

  • What do they care about, what are their main incentives?

  • How do they go about processing and making decisions?

As an example he mentioned that if he is preparing a presentation about a new product to an executive who cares about cost reduction, he will not only include the revenue opportunities, but also the long-term savings that this product may bring; so he has a better chance to get the executive's support.

3. Having mentors in various areas helps to accelerate career development

There's no standard recipe for effective mentorship. Soumik prefers to have a fluid, rather than formal, relationship with his mentors.

He has three groups of mentors and they help him on:

  • Leadership development

  • Business strategy

  • Industry expertise

Great mentors are honest and build a trustful relationship.

You may not like what they're saying, but if they're honest and you're welcoming of their feedback, that absolutely helps.

Taking a proactive effort to invite a mentor for a 30-minute coffee is Soumik's advice to build strong relationships.

He also recommends evaluating if your mentors are aligned to where you want to be in your current career path and the skills you are trying to develop. As an example he mentioned that he had to find new mentors when transitioning from tech to retail.

4. Balancing short-term and long-term strategy to achieve corporate vision

Soumik highlighted the importance of balancing short-term and long-term vision when doing strategic planning.

He works close to the organization's leadership team to analyze potential projects and their impact to customers and to the organization's strategy. Having a comprehensive business case measuring customer satisfaction and understanding the market, industry trends, and the competition are important components for the decision-making process

As strategic initiatives are implemented, financial and consumer metrics are tracked and compared to the initial hypothesis and business case. In case projects are not performing as expected, he may decide to pivot to other business opportunities.

How C-Level Executives Priotitize Work-Life Balance
How C-Level Executives Priotitize Work-Life Balance

5. How C-level executives prioritize work-life balance

Soumik takes work-life balance pretty seriously and he recommends the book Corporate Athlete that has coached him to improve on this area.

A lesson from the book in his own words:

If you don't have your mental balance in a good place, if you don't have your physical health in a good place, you're not going to succeed in anything.

Here are his two main strategies for achieving work-life balance:

Don't check emails before 8AM Soumik starts his day grabbing a cup of coffee, talking to his family, and focusing on the key priorities for the day. Once opening the inbox there will be over 50 e-mails that he will need to respond to.

Sleep at least 7 hours per night

There are people I know who sleep four hours. I need seven, but I think that's made me much more productive as a human being, as a leader, and as a peer to everyone.

We have talked about the importance of wellness and balance for the workplace and how to improve balance and it's truly inspiring to learn from a C-level executive that work-life balance should be taken seriously. It's possible to have a successful career and work-life balance.

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