The title “Chief Growth Officer” implies a fairly straightforward mandate. Whether by focusing resources, seeking untapped markets, or broadening a company’s sights, Chief Growth Officers are there to discover new pathways to growth.
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“In today’s global, digital world, there’s suddenly this imperative to focus on growth at the highest possible level,” says Sanjay Khosla, a senior fellow in the Kellogg Markets and Customers Initiative and former President, Developing Markets of Kraft Foods.
But how exactly does a Chief Growth Officer implement new growth strategies? Here are a few touchstones to consider.
Mine for gold. Too often, companies think about growth in the context of quarterly earnings, or in terms of meeting current demand. The benefit of having a CGO is the ability to develop a long-term vision. “When I think about growth,” says Scott Davis, a Kellogg alumnus and Chief Growth Officer of the brand and marketing consultancy Prophet, “I think about what customer segments I want to go after, which geographies I want to enter, and what kind of experiences I want to create. It’s not just about growing two to three percent; it’s about taking dramatic leaps—ten, fifteen, twenty percent.”
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For this kind of growth, a CGO must look for opportunities across all functions and geographies. Khosla calls this “mining for gold.” “You find your company’s hidden strengths—those islands of excellence—and you figure out how to expand them, how to make them scalable.” These islands of excellence could be unusual products, surprising processes, or business units or markets that are beating benchmarks.
Be ready to write blank checks. Part of the CGO’s job is to build cross-functional teams that can meet shifts in global demand. But he or she should also be willing to invest heavily when the timing is right and the vision is clear. “I call it the ‘blank check’ approach,” Khosla says. “When you offer the leader of a team unlimited resources, often that leader becomes more accountable, and they are even more likely to achieve the impossible.”
“You have to think of yourself as being an advocate for the consumer.”
Khosla experienced this first hand while serving as president of Kraft Food’s developing-markets group. When Kraft decided to put more resources behind its most promising brands—Tang in Brazil, Cadbury in India, Oreos in China—profits soared in just a few years.
But these projects were not sure-fire wins from the outset. For example, in the early 2000s, Tang had fallen mightily from its heyday as the drink of astronauts. Efforts to revive the brand by selling pre-mixed Tang, even Tang-flavored yogurt, had only limited success. And yet Kraft realized that Tang nonetheless had a lot going for it—including name recognition and an on-trend “green” supply chain—and invested anyway.
“Pursuing growth is about being able to take those kinds of risks,” Khosla says.
Be an advocate for the consumer. Growth is not just about identifying new markets to enter. It is also about staying in tune with the customers you already have, or could have. “You can’t have growth without demand,” Davis says, “so you always have to be asking yourself, What is the market looking for? What kinds of offerings don’t exist yet? You have to think of yourself as being an advocate for the consumer.”
As Davis sees it, part of what it means to be an advocate for the consumer is to find out what the pain points are. “It’s amazing how much this can unlock growth,” he says.
Consider Prophet’s campaign to help turn T-Mobile’s fortunes around. In 2011, following a failed merger, T-Mobile was struggling to keep up with the competition, shedding customers left and right. “When we came in, we developed a growth strategy specifically around pain points,” Davis says. “We found there were major problems with trust and there was frustration over contract policies.” This focus on the customer led to T-Mobile’s “Un-carrier strategy,” which eliminated long-term contracts and promised a more flexible wireless service. T-Mobile’s revenues increased dramatically over the next three years.
“When there’s someone in your organization whose job it is to listen to customers—including customers across the entire industry—it’s easier to see what needs to be changed,” Davis says. “This is something we began to see with the shifting role of the [Chief Marketing Officer]. CMOs are finally being offered a seat at the adults’ table. The rise of the Chief Growth Officer is an extension of that trend.”
Know your business. Khosla points out that, contrary to popular belief, the role of CGO does not necessarily require a marketing background. As an example, he points to Mark Clouse, the CGO of Mondelez International, who never served as CMO. “Companies look for people with commercial experience, people who can actually run a business,” Khosla says.
Davis agrees that the CGO should be someone with a finger on the pulse of the company. “You had better understand how the business works, because you have to be able to work with the entire leadership team. Your case for change will need to pass the CFO test.”
Compel and inspire. “But you also have to compel,” Davis says. “It’s an interesting blend of strategy and inspiration,” he continues. “Your ideas need to be economically viable, but they also have to be visionary. You have to convince your organization to make changes based on demand, which sometimes means being a provocateur.”
In many ways, Davis says, it can be liberating to concentrate on growth alone. “You don’t always have to be thinking about the same trade-offs that other executives might have to think about.” Ideally, this means the CGO is free to challenge the status quo in order to discover new pathways to growth. But it also leads to a heightened sense of responsibility and purpose. “You always have to be listening, and thinking about what’s next,” Davis says. “And you have to make a very strong case.”
Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.
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