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#58: The Chief Strategy Officer

A behind-the-scenes look at a product marketer’s dream role

79% of product marketers don’t want to be a CMO.

This stat shocked me when I first heard it in London at the PMA’s Global Briefing. On one hand, I hear daily from PMMs who don’t consider themselves marketers. But, on the other hand, the CMO has long been promoted as the natural path into leadership for product marketers.

So, if your path to the C-suite isn’t as a Chief Marketing Office, what are the options?

In my opinion, there are tons: Chief Product Officer, Chief Revenue Officer, dare I say Chief Product Marketing Officer (that’s a post for another time).

Today, I’m going to share my personal favorite: the Chief Strategy Officer (CSO). This was the path I personally chose, going from Director of PMM to VP of PMM & Strategic Growth to Chief Strategy Officer in the span of four years at Unbounce.

This week, we’ll dig into what the role of a CSO really involves - responsibilities, metrics, you name it. I’ll also share the job description I drafted for myself when I got the role.

Let’s get into it 👇🏻

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The Chief Strategy Officer

When I was the Chief Strategy Officer at Unbounce, I routinely got asked, “is this a job you made up?” Ummmm, excuse me? Nope, not even a little bit. 

The role of Chief Strategy Officer has existed for decades, although historially it’s been more prevelant in non-technology industries. But I’ve noticed over the past 5 years there’s been a rise of CSOs at software companies of all sizes.

So, what is a Chief Strategy Officer? Here’s the definition I use:

“A CSO guides strategy development and helps focus the organization on executing against the strategy today while planning for tomorrow.”

It’s super important to understand that as a CSO you aren’t just dreaming up wild strategies alone in a room. Yes, you’re planning the company’s future moves, but you’re also helping the company make the next best decision (it’s kind of like chess).

I love this quote from Harvard Business Review: “It’s easy to misjudge the role of the Chief Strategy Officer, in part because the title itself is misleading. These executives are not, for example, pure strategists, conducting long-range planning in relative isolation …Rather, they are seasoned executives with a strong strategy orientation who have typically led major initiatives or businesses and worn many operating hats before taking on the role…most CSOs consider themselves doers first, with the mandate, credentials, and desire to act as well as advise.”

Who wouldn’t want that role?! This all sounds great conceptually, but what does a CSO actually do? At most companies, there are four main buckets of responsibilities as a Chief Strategy Officer:

Strategy Development (Outside-In) - You’re looking outside the business at external forces to understand how the market and competitors are behaving

Strategy Development (Inside-Out) - You’re looking within the business at things like performance, technology and resources to identify your unique capabilities

Strategy Planning - You’re leading key stakeholders through the process to formulate a differentiated strategy and ensuring it’s sound and cohesive

Strategy Execution - You’re bringing the strategy to life in the daily operations of the business and socializing the strategy with employees

On any given day, I could be working on the following:

  • Sleuthing competitors

  • Conducting customer interviews

  • Leading an annual planning workshop

  • Identifying merger and acquisition targets

  • Drafting differentiated positioning and messaging

  • Walking new employees through our strategy deck

  • Sharing our company narrative at a conference

  • Calculating addressable market size

  • Building growth models in Excel

AND managing the product marketing team! 

This may sound like a wide variety of activities, but it starts to make more sense when I introduce the concept of time horizons.

Strategic Time Horizons

The future isn’t a binary thing. It’s not just “the present” or “the future”. There are phases of the future that need to be considered and planned carefully.

In strategic planning, we call these time horizons. Generally, a Chief Strategy Officer will operate across three time horizons:

  • Short Term (1 year): Extend and defend the existing business

  • Mid Term (1-3 years): Build emerging products and businesses

  • Long Term (3+ years): Create viable options for the future

Depending on your company’s structure, goals and growth stage, you may spend different amounts of time on each horizon. For me, I spent about 50% of my time on the Mid Term strategy, 30% of my time on the Short Term strategy and 20% of my time on the Long Term strategy. 

Here’s what that looked like in practice. In the Short Term horizon I am working with the PMM and product teams to ensure we aren’t making one-way door decisions (ie. should we localize language in app). In the Mid Term horizon I am identifying the value required to unlock a new market (ie. what needs to be true for us to win that segment). And in the Long Term horizon I’m considering our exit path (ie. should we IPO, get acquired by a strategic, raise more funding, etc).

The CSO Archetypes

No two CSOs are the same (sound familiar, product marketers?). While we were writing my job description at Unbounce, we stumbled across an article from Deloitte that outlined the six most common roles a CSO plays within the business:

  • The advisor: helping shape the strategy

  • The sentinel: sensing and interpreting market shifts

  • The banker: driving deals and partnerships

  • The engineer: designing and running the strategic planning process

  • The aide de camp: the CEO’s unofficial chief of staff

  • The special project's leader: tackling miscellaneous high-impact initiatives

The reality is that most Chief Strategy Officer roles will include a mix of the above. But, it’s a great starting point if you’re considering a future in strategy.

Here’s how to work backwards to build a path to the role. First, draft a list of core competencies and skills required to succeed in each of these “roles” and across the three different time horizons. Second, identify where you’re strong today, and where you have gaps. Third, build a plan to increase capacity in the areas where you have gaps - take on projects and initiatives that will help you build this muscle. 

I hope this look into the inner workings of the CSO role has been both educational and inspirational - I just think it’s one of the best jobs out there!

Looking for some great CSOs (past or present) to follow? Check out Jacqueline Cook, Nina Bilimoria Angelo and Matt Smith.


📚 Reading List: This report from EY Strategy breaks down the DNA of a Chief Strategy Officer - super helpful to dig even deeper into the various capabilities required to succeed

📚 Reading List: This old-ish but very interesting article from McKinsey highlights their take on the 5 archetypes of a CSO. It’s a great read to start to consider what shape of a role you’d be interested in

Until next week,


P.S. Ready to build a high-impact career? Here’s a few ways I can help:

  • Build connection and grow your career alongside 150+ other PMM leaders. Join the waitlist for PMM Camp’s private community, the only community built for (and by) PMM leaders. New spots open up March 18.

  • Craft your own personal positioning statement in 30 minutes or less. Take my free mini course and learn how to identify and communicate your “secret sauce” as a PMM.