Why Your Company Needs a Chief Impact Officer (and What the Position Calls For)

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It’s a position you may not even know exists, but it will soon be playing a crucial role in leadership teams around the country. I predict every major company and startup will soon be hiring its own chief impact officer (CIO) and in doing so, elevating the voice of impact into the C-Suite.  

While you can no doubt rattle off all kinds of acronyms roles starting with the letter C, the chief impact officer role is one unknown to most companies. You may even think of it as being limited to the nonprofit world, where it’s much more common today.

However, last year, the CIO title began building a stronger brand for itself in the startup world when BetterUp hired the most famous CIO to date: Prince Harry. But because CIOs are still so rare, they are currently seen by most companies as, at best, a nice to have but not a necessity. For forward-looking organizations, though, the CIO will soon be absolutely instrumental to both the short and long-term success of companies of all sizes.

Axios reports that “businesses are under more pressure to save society” today, with more people trusting businesses than they do governments or NGOs. That’s an exceptionally heavy burden for founders and CEOs to shoulder, and one that can’t possibly appropriately rest with just one person (who is simultaneously pressured by investors chiefly to generate financial returns).  

The pressure on companies to be mission-oriented and make a positive impact isn’t just coming from the outside, it’s also increasingly coming from the inside. Workers of all ages, and especially members of up-and-coming Gen Z, unequivocally expect the companies they work for to both act responsibly in the community and to provide them with a means through which they can make a difference in the world.

Today’s employees are quick to leave companies that aren’t giving them a sense of purpose, and they hold increasingly high standards around expectations of corporate behavior. Both sides of the impact equation matter to our colleagues: Proactively having a positive impact on stakeholders of all kinds through products and services, as well as appropriately responding to external ethical and cultural dilemmas as they arise.

As StartSomeGood co-founder Tom Dawkins says, “Impact needs to be a lens, not a category.” In other words, we need to continually think about the impact in all of our actions and behaviors — not as a separate department, we check in with on specific occasions.  The impact is not just about volunteer days and feel-good statements. It’s about aligning our mission, vision, and values in all we do.  

Some pioneering CIOs are already hard at work in corporate and startup settings. But because the role is still so new, the responsibilities of a CIO are still to be written — which is a really exciting opportunity for all of us. Going forward, I see CIOs playing a key leadership role across three areas in all types of companies.   

1. Corporate Social Responsibility. 

Under this umbrella, I include both the more traditional environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria that more and more investors are using in screening companies — as well as corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts which can include everything from discounts on products for certain groups to partnerships with grassroots nonprofits.

The CIO will ensure that all of these pieces fit together in a cohesive narrative and that all activities connect back to the overall strategy of the firm. The CIO will make sure that the whole leadership team knows about these efforts, and that they are considered when making decisions ranging from finances to branding.  

2. Navigating Ethics Conflicts. 

With more and more companies considering bottom lines beyond simply profit, such as environmental and social impact, and increasingly taking on new legal forms such as benefit corporations (B Corps), decision making has gotten much more complicated. How does a company balance a potential new partnership with huge financial upside and an equally huge environmental damage?

Most startups have no good mechanism for these types of challenging decisions. And while CFOs are equipped to make the case for the financial bottom line, we need CIOs to make the case for the impact side of things. This doesn’t guarantee that impact drives all decisions. But it does ensure that impact gets a seat at the table and becomes a lens through which forward-looking companies make decisions.  

3. Articulating Values and Spreading Purpose.

As Ben & Jerry’s CEO Matthew McCarthy says, companies must have and articulate its values. It can be anything, he says, “but what it can’t be is nothing.” Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, companies were quick to post statements on social media. But a year later, researchers have found that there’s virtually no correlation, for instance, between “talking about racial diversity in proxy statements and actual racial diversity” in the boardroom.

Doing the right thing takes work, and CIOs can ensure that words are backed up by action. CIOs will help companies articulate their values and make sure teammates lean into them to make decisions. CIOs will be an advocate for purpose and for values-led action throughout the company, and they will help teammates at all levels connect with the greater mission of the company and help the organization live up to these ideals — in actions, not just in words.

The opportunity is clear: Companies are feeling pressure from all sides to pursue impact in their work both internally and externally. To make this happen, leadership teams need someone to elevate impact from an isolated department to an essential lens for making decisions. The person who will make this happen is the chief impact officer. And they should be your next big hire.

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