Research Library Article


Rethinking the Role of the Strategist

David Earle

McKinsey’s report on how corporate strategy and the role of CSO (Chief Strategy Officer) have evolved since the 1980s. A useful reference for the many CHROs who are themselves transitioning from a process-centered role to active and demanding membership on the corporate strategy team.

CHROs who have been asked by their companies to transition to a more strategy-based role will benefit from understanding the evolution of that role and the broadening of its responsibilities over the past 35 years. Just as the CHRO’s role has become less process centric, so has the CSO’s, resulting in a broader working brief and the need for additional skills.

McKinsey’s worldwide survey of 350 senior strategists in 25 industries finds 13 distinct responsibilities, which they group into five clusters, or archetypes: architect, mobilizer, visionary, surveyor and fund manager. Each cluster represents a signature strength in the performance of successful CSOs in successful companies—defined as those that consider themselves “very effective developers of strategy” and are more profitable than their competitors. Process management remains a key competency—second in overall importance—but no longer the dominant one.

In the 1980s, as the corporate strategy function began to professionalize, it was viewed mostly as process-centric—managing the data gathering, writing and delivery of the organization’s forward plan of action. That view had an annual horizon but might also attempt to project forward five to ten years.

Fast forward through the decades and the strategy brief morphed in a number of directions, resulting in considerable variation today in how individual companies approach the task. Some stress risk management, some stress opportunity and growth, while others focus on organizational unity and efficiency.

For example, in regulated industries with long planning horizons, such as banking, telecommunications and utilities, the surveyor archetype is important because of the need to spot potential disruptions and trends that might change how an industry operates. The surveyer then needs to translate that information into impacts and opportunities.

Strategy archetypes graph

Planning processes tailored to long cycles no longer provide timely guidance in a rapidly changing world where disruptions occur frequently and unexpectedly. Instead, they have needed to become more ad hoc, topic-specific, and year-round, in other words more flexible and responsive.

In progressive organizations human capital is now recognized as a critical corporate resource, and CHROs as its principal stewards. This means they are becoming deeply entwined in the formulation of corporate strategy. For many this is both a welcome and an unfamiliar role. But an already challenging job is made more difficult if there is no playbook written by a prior CHRO and if the strategy function itself is in flux.

Industries and organization differ. McKinsey does not suggest that their research findings constitute a playbook. Nor are we suggesting that CHROs train themselves as CSOs. We do, however, see merit in CHROs becoming familiar with where corporate strategy has been, where it’s headed, and what effective planning looks like.


  • Strategic planning under assault
  • Developing signature strengths
  • 13 facets of the CSO role
  • The five archetypes
  • Why career background matters
  • Allocating resources
  • Prioritizing

"Achieving real impact today requires strategists to stretch beyond strategic planning to develop at least one of a few signature strengths. Several important facets of the strategist’s role emerged from our research, including reallocating corporate resources, building strategic capabilities at key places in the organization, identifying business-development opportunities, and generating proprietary insights on the basis of external forces at work and long-term market trends. A number of these roles are more appropriate for some strategists and organizations than for others. But the core notion of stretching and choosing is relevant for all."

 McKinsey Report Information