Expert opinion: Chief Impact Officers are disrupters

By Constance Nevoret, Executive VP Sustainable Development Mantu & CEO LittleBig Connection

Article originally published in Les Echos Solutions

Prince Harry at BetterUp, Kat Borlongan at Contentsquare, and now Julien Denormandie at Sweep… what are Chief Impact Officers (CIOs) up to? This role’s gradual expansion within start-ups and later to large companies signals that organizational impact has become a strategic issue. While CSR influenced companies’ policies in the last ten years, the current proliferation of CIOs demonstrates a paradigm shift has occurred, caused by several factors.

The rise of impact leaders

First and foremost, the public debate surrounding the climate emergency is growing – as evidenced by the panic over the numerous fires in France this summer. Tightening regulatory requirements also contributes equally to this new world order. 2023 will see the arrival of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which will force a larger number of companies to comply with non-financial performance reporting.

Moreover, both internal and external stakeholders are increasingly demanding more from companies… between young graduates’ search for purpose, partners’ increased vigilance, and society’s expectations, it was clearly time to broaden CSR’s scope.

Gone are the days of mere regulatory compliance: formalizing an impact strategy means being ready to review a company’s operations in depth. Its leader consequently holds the power to disrupt the status quo.

A multi-faceted role

Most CIOs are responsible for measuring their organization’s impact and for developing a strategy that incorporates growth objectives. Nevertheless, the scope of this role changes according to a company’s business line, its maturity, and the profile involved! For example, Prince Harry’s objectives at BetterUp include promoting mental health awareness, driving the company’s social mission and impact, influencing the platform’s vision, community and membership experience, and expanding its global community.

At Contentsquare, Kat Borlongan works on the impact of tech: “digital trust, data protection, diversity and inclusion, sustainability, digital accessibility, UX education, UX for good”. She is also in charge of “bringing together different teams within the organization, including those in charge of operations, product innovation, marketing, and CSR to shape the company’s approach”. These different profiles demonstrate the interdisciplinarity of the CIO role.

CIOs are also disruptors because they can transform a company’s culture and business model. In theory, their strategic position gives them the ability to change what is on offer, and therefore, to act closely with the line of business. For directors, recruiting a CIO is thus equal to unleashing disruption upon their own organization, which is far from being a ‘publicity stunt’.

And while appointing a C-level to oversee impact issues is a good starting point, the real test of courage will be to turn words into action: providing measurable progress and transformation.

For the CIO to play their part, however, it is essential that they are given free rein and access to strategic discussions – currently only half of CIOs are part of their company’s executive committee.

Leaders take on interdisciplinary action

Chief Impact Officer is a highly symbolic position, which nevertheless calls for candidates that have overcome business challenges in the past and can transform a value creation model.

Rather than being removed from an organization’s practical considerations, this role directly touches upon its combination of economic value and social investment. Therein lies the criteria for the role’s legitimacy, its ultimate outcome being to generate new offers.

Getting an organization’s talent community on board is equally vital for the success of a CIO’s mission. Collective intelligence activates the interdisciplinary dimension of impact strategies. By working hand in hand with other departments (management, HR, marketing, finance, purchasing, etc.), CIOs can drive change at every level of an organization.

The CIO’s objective is to integrate impact into existing practices, and to suggest new ones in spaces where gaps have been identified. CIOs will also enable companies to open up more to their ecosystem, by creating connections outside their borders, allowing companies to expand.

As committed players of disruption within companies, CIOs must be given the recognition and responsibility necessary to transform value creation models by opening them up. The credibility of companies and leaders depend upon this.

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