Wild Cards for Tomorrow’s C-Suite

In the first post of their 7-part series, John Elkington and Charmian Love look at how key C-Suite players are coping with the new wild cards dealt by environmental, social and governance challenges.



As sustainability activists and professionals are drawn into the corporate world as stakeholders and strategy consultants, we thought it might help to have a deck of cards identifying key players in today’s C-Suite–the rarefied realm of business decision-makers like CEOs, CFOs and COOs, all of whom have the word “Chief” in their title.

We know we’re not the first to describe capitalism as a high-stakes poker game, but in this series of seven blogs we’ll take the metaphor at face value. After all, “Poker is a microcosm of all we admire and disdain about capitalism and democracy,” wrote poker columnist Lou Krieger. “It can be rough-hewn or polished, warm or cold, charitable and caring, or hard and impersonal, fickle and elusive, but ultimately it is fair, and right, and just.”

Really? Think of the fallout from recent market excesses or our increasingly unstable climate. Such externalities have fuelled the explosion in recent decades of high-octane social and environmental movements, dedicated to alerting policy-makers, investors and business leaders to areas where capitalism disrupts lives, communities or ecosystems. These movements have included campaigns against abuses in such areas as consumer safety, environment, aid, human rights and corruption.

Before many of them became political or business strategy consultants, the voices of the leaders of these movements were often reduced to a dull rumor inside the plush gaming rooms of the global casino. Now, increasingly, they are inside. Every so often, high-stakes gamblers like George Soros have embraced societal challenges by setting up foundations, but they were seen as mutants. Now, however, a bewildering array of market superstars, including Bill Gates, is playing this game. Gates, for example, is no longer just tackling health issues like malaria but also spotlighting climate change as the wild card challenge of the century. And he is shaping mainstream understanding of these issues: As of April 2010, he had accumulated over 685,000 followers on Twitter in just a few months.

Gates is emerging as a fascinating social innovator–and, like many of his ilk, is supporting a growing stable of social entrepreneurs. Whatever language they use, many of these people are inspired by the same concept–sustainability. Many business people, on the other hand, particularly in the U.S., see the idea as something of a Trojan horse. Many seem to fear that while sustainability may be prettily green outside, it could house a dangerous, political core akin to socialism, even communism.

Hogwash that may be, but such critics won’t be much comforted to see that the fastest growing element in all of this is social innovation–explored in recent books like Connected and Switch. Most people in the C-Suite are blind to the trend, but there’s a revolution building–focusing on shifting market mindsets, behaviors, cultures, and, ultimately, paradigms. Read, for example, the latest report from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Vision 2050, signed off by 29 global CEOs. The trail is being blazed for a new breed of market revolutionaries, who will not simply play their cards differently but also help change the rules of the game.


Traditionally, there has been a sort of holy C-Suite trinity–the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer. They preside over a growing deck of other chiefs, among them Chief Marketing Officers, Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Technology Officers, and Chief Sustainability Officers, to name a few. Each then cascades to a wider world of Vice-Presidents and lesser denominations, whose role involves implementing the directives flowing from the top table.

The growing complexity of the business environment, coupled with job title inflation, has driven the proliferation of C-Suite titles and reporting lines, which strikes us as unsustainable. Ultimately, we expect to see a consolidation, with fewer, more complex and better-integrated portfolios. This process has already begun, as corporations restructure through the downturn.

So where next? In poker, a dream hand is the Royal Flush. In the C-Suite, this might involve getting all major players aligned behind a transformational change agenda. We lay out our own cards in the next six blogs, investigating ways to build dream teams and alliances. The idea is to help those at the cutting edge of business decision-making to think fast in complex, rapidly changing conditions.

In our second blog, we investigate the size of the market pot for which the big players are now competing. In the following three postings, we spotlight the C-Suite Kings (CEOs), Queens (CFOs), and Jacks (COOs). Then, in the final pair of blogs, we spotlight two clusters of C-Suite roles: first, the array of people (Chief Ethics Officers, Chief Legal Officers, Chief Responsibility Officers, and Chief Sustainability Officers), who try to keep the business on the rails; and, second, those (including CTOs, Chief Innovation Officers, and Chief Creativity Officers) who work to jump the business onto a totally different set of rails.

Series: John Elkington on the New C-Suite

John Elkington is co-founder and executive chairman of Volans Ventures and co-founder and director SustainAbility. His most recent book was The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World (Harvard Business School Press, 2008). Charmian Love is Chief Executive of Volans.