Playing Aces: Going for the C-Suite Flush

In the last post of their 7-part series, John Elkington and Charmian Love look at how a new breed of ‘Aces’, among them Chief Innovation Officers and CTOs, are coping with the new wild cards dealt by environmental, social and governance challenges.


Aces are fascinating cards, scoring high or low, depending on circumstances. Here they stand for the potentially breakthrough individuals, teams, business models and technologies that can help C-Suites to drive transformational change–and future-proof their businesses. And there are new ways of finding, grooming and deploying such talent. At least that’s the hope of those who employ the growing armies of CTOs (Chief Technology Officers), CIOs (Chief Innovation Officers) and, the new kids on the block, CCOs (Chief Creativity Officers).

At a time when some people are even celebrating the emergence of Chief Happiness Officers, a concept with which we have no quarrel, always having wanted to be happy in our work, we would counter-argue that is a growing need for Chief Unhappiness Officers–dedicated to the task of making their C-Suites uneasy about their worldviews, business models, technologies and social networks. You could say that Andy Grove qualified for the title when he was CEO of Intel–and wrote the seminal business book, Only the Paranoid Survive.

Grove, by general repute was an Ace in the chip industry–and at a critical time. All industries have such people, it’s just that in turbulent, transformative times they are less concentrated in C-Suites than spread out in seemingly random ways across the business.

Some years back, we drew out a 2×2 BCG-style matrix spotlighting the new dynamics of change. Its vertical axis ran from bottom-up to top-down, and its horizontal axis from inside-out to outside-in. In the old order, change typically cascaded top-down, with the news broadcast from the inside out. In the new order, by stark contrast, much of the change is bubbling bottom-up, cutting across established hierarchies, and it turns out that many of the most powerful solutions to the great systemic and market challenges we face are to be found outside the confines of the company.

Tomorrow’s corporate Aces will know how to play the wild cards that have so disruptive to earlier generations of CEOs and senior executives–and they will know how to source suitably disruptive solutions, whether from customers, competitors, NGOs, public agencies or social and environmental entrepreneurs.

As we have seen, leading companies like Danone and Allianz are reaching out to innovators in very different bits of the market landscape, seeking new thinking, new markets, new business models, new technologies and new ways of connecting with the future. In this version of the story, corporate Goliaths will need to work out how to work with the entrepreneurial Davids.


The tragedy is that so many business schools betrayed their students for so long by failing to equip them for a world where environmental, social and governance issues are becoming part of the C-Suite agenda in one sector–and geography–after another. Having worked with MBA and other postgraduate students at business schools and universities around the world, we have experienced at first hand the incredible appetite of so many of these young people for exposure to these new challenges and to those who are innovating solutions.

Business issues that were once the preserve of specialist magazines and newsletters and then exploded out into the business innovation media, notably Fast Company, are now routinely surfacing in the mainstream management media, for example the Harvard Business Review. ‘Why Sustainability is Now the Key Driver of Innovation’ was the title of one major HBR article last year, for example, c-authored by C.K. Prahalad and his colleagues Ram Nidumolu and M.R. Rangaswami.

And their conclusion? “Executives behave as though they have to choose between the largely social benefits of developing sustainable products or processes and the financial costs of doing so,” they argued. “But that’s simply not true. Our research shows that sustainability is a mother lode of organizational and technological innovations that yield both bottom-line and top-line returns. In fact, because those are the goals of corporate innovation, we find that smart companies now treat sustainability as innovation’s new frontier.”

They went on to say that, “the quest for sustainability is already starting to transform the competitive landscape, which will force companies to change the way they think about products, technologies, processes, and business models. The key to progress, particularly in times of economic crisis, is innovation. Just as some Internet companies survived the bust in 2000 to challenge incumbents, so, too, will sustainable corporations emerge from today’s recession to upset the status quo. By treating sustainability as a goal today, early movers will develop competencies that rivals will be hard-pressed to match.”

Only a vanishingly small proportion of start-ups become Googles but, whatever your business, it’s time to find and learn how to play your Aces. Ranking as either the highest or lowest card in the deck, depending on the rules, the Ace symbolizes the top-down, bottom-up world into which we are headed. But however it gets into your hand, it is the most powerful card in poker–a key to making the highest possible pair, straight, flush, or full house. It’s time to find these people, whether inside or outside today’s C-Suite, inside or outside the corporation. And to work with them to create new forms of capitalism fit for the new century.

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.