by Coco Brown
Founder & CEO @ The Athena Alliance
It wasn’t too long ago that customer-facing and service-centric roles were far outside the circles of the C-Suite, let alone within reach of the boardroom. But today’s world is drastically different from the way we did business even 10 years ago. Case in point: I recently spoke at a conference about the rise of Chief Customer Officers (CCO) as not only power players in the C-suite but also the boardroom, a topic that wouldn’t have been possible if I were speaking at such a conference in 2009.
I credit three key factors to the rise of the CCO, both male and female, in its evolution into a C-suite power player. And each of these factors is deeply intertwined with the next.
From corporate power to consumer power
Look no further than companies like Uber, United Airlines, Wells Fargo, and Wynn Resorts to witness this fundamental shift in power dynamics. For example, in the case of Wells Fargo, media stated “Wells Fargo customers, frustrated by a cascade of scandals, could yank tens of billions in deposits from the bank over the next year.”
The issues these companies faced were related to a breakdown in alignment between the strive to attain traditional metrics of success (like rapid growth or market share) and the need to connect to stakeholders (their customers, employees, community, society). These companies failed to recognize that relationships to stakeholder supersedes, and drives the transaction that eventually leads to revenue and market share.
Corporations are no longer in the driver’s seat. Customers are taking control by making an impact with their dollars — where they do or don’t spend, driving conversations across social media, and calling out a company when its actions are not well received. This shift in power has enabled customer-centric roles to step into the spotlight. Where companies once told consumers what to buy and what to think, consumers now tell companies what to make and how to behave. It’s a different world than that of just one generation ago.
The rise of conscious capitalism
Larry Fink, CEO and Chairman of BlackRock and the poster leader for Wall Street, runs the largest asset management firm in the world. His firm manages $6.3 trillion. Fink is paying attention to the shift mentioned above. Through his annual letters to CEO, he is guiding leaders to attend to this shift from the top down.
Fink noted in his letter to CEOs: “Society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate. Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.”
This shift from profit to purpose — and the idea that companies can have both — cannot be ignored. Firms like BlackRock feed 80% of all stock market indexes. They are mirroring what customers desire: purpose, positive contribution, and long-lasting value. The conversation is no longer about delivering shareholder value, it’s about delivering stakeholder value. To achieve success in this realm, customers must be engaged, employees must be engaged, and greater communities must be engaged, deepening the power behind the CCO role.
The rise of the feminine archetype
We live on a continuum, balancing what we attribute as feminine and masculine qualities within ourselves, within society, and within business. Women have traditionally played most strongly in leadership in areas of business that have been deemed as not having enough hard, quantifiable value. Women are most often found in the leadership roles most connected to integration of people with process and “things”, such as the CHRO, CMO, and CCO.
Yet, these roles are rising to power in the last few years within the c-suite and the boardroom. This is great news for the women who hold 55%, 32%, and 35% of all those roles respectively, but it’s also great for men in those realms. Additionally, it’s increasingly becoming more common to see these roles come out from under other C-suite roles in the hierarchy (e.g. CHRO is now reporting to the CEO rather than the CFO).
Effective boards need a pulse on the customer
A deep connection to the customer is required for boards to successfully operate amid these three shifts and navigate a customer-centric world head on. Within the Athena network, we’re seeing a rise in demand for roles such as the CCO and CHRO in the boardroom. I’m pleased to see boards embracing these contemporary perspectives in their journey to remain relevant to the hearts and minds of customers.