The rise of the chief medical officer in consumer-facing companies

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The pandemic put health and well-being front and center—not only for individuals and consumers but also for the companies that serve them. For companies in the healthcare and life sciences industries, the chief medical officer or chief health officer role (both referred to as CMOs in this article for simplicity) has long been critical in overseeing patient safety. However, the concept of a CMO is relatively new for consumer-facing companies. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these organizations have added a CMO to their leadership group or expanded the role to include contributing to strategy, working with regulators, and shaping internal policies and culture.

Like many pandemic-era developments, the CMO role appears to be here to stay. Now consumer-facing companies must seek to clearly define a position that has a multitude of potential demands—from product development and consumer safety to employee benefits and policies. How should CMOs balance the well-being of employees and consumers? Are they more valuable contributing to growth or promoting an internal culture of health and safety? How can CMOs collectively elevate the role that consumer-facing companies play in supporting broader healthcare outcomes, such as health equity?

Each company will have to determine how the specific scope of the CMO role will support business needs and strategy. We have identified three archetypes for the CMO role, each with a different mix of responsibilities and balance of external and internal priorities. These archetypes can provide a valuable point of reference for companies as they manage increasing and varied demands in the areas of health and well-being. Our research, including surveys and in-depth interviews with CMOs from global organizations, highlights common themes that can serve as guideposts for the evolution of the CMO role in the coming years.

Three common archetypes

Over the past two years, the CMO role has become multifaceted, including everything from setting company health guidelines and protocols to providing COVID-19-related updates and mental-health support for employees. Now, a panoply of colliding developments—such as the push for employees to return to the workplace, the Great Resignation, and other issues related to mental health—have pulled CMOs in additional directions.

The risk for consumer-facing companies is that the CMO role could become a catchall of random responsibilities that distract from strategic priorities. For example, surveys suggest that employees think their companies focus too much on transactional elements (such as compensation and development opportunities) at the expense of cultural elements (such as ensuring that workers are valued by their organization and have caring, trusting teammates). Furthermore, companies need to determine how to distinguish the components of care that a CMO provides for employees from those provided by managers and human resources professionals.

Our analysis identified three primary CMO archetypes: the policy maker and culture carrier, the guardian of the patient and the consumer, and the growth strategist. Depending on a specific company’s needs and strategy, the role might fit squarely into one archetype. More commonly, however, the role will reflect a combination of elements across these archetypes—though one archetype should be dominant.

Over the past two years, the CMO role has become multifaceted, including everything from setting company health guidelines and protocols to providing COVID-19-related updates and mental-health support for employees.

Policy maker and culture carrier

In the archetype of policy maker and culture carrier, the CMO concentrates on the health and well-being of employees and customers (see sidebar “Henry Ting, Chief Health and Well-Being Officer, Delta Airlines”). In the COVID-19 environment, for example, responsibilities center around bringing employees back to the office safely (including setting return-to-work policies), monitoring compliance and health statistics, and creating interventions and programs aligned with wellness attributes. The CMO defines the guidelines to ensure that both employees and customers have a positive, safe experience while doing business. In addition, the CMO authorizes any internal and external communication related to employee well-being.

Since the CMO already plays a large part in employee health, an expanded role in this archetype would include setting policies for employee wellbeing and overseeing an expansion of well-being efforts by weaving in elements such as mental health and overall job satisfaction. Further, a CMO would make recommendations on additional employee benefits and other actions that could enhance company culture.

Guardian of the patient and the consumer

The CMO in the guardian role holds the safety of patients and consumers paramount (see sidebar “Dr. Marc Watkins, CMO, Kroger”). This archetype is grounded in a medical role that seeks to ensure the safety of customers and end users as they interact with a company’s products and services. The role incorporates a regulatory bent, with a focus on developing policies and agendas. Internally, the CMO handles R&D policies and takes the lead on translational science, clinical development, and medical affairs.

Postpandemic, the essence of the role is likely to stay the same. As companies incorporate new wellness-focused products into their portfolios, the CMO might develop strategies to manage the heightened scrutiny that will come from external stakeholders. Furthermore, with the ongoing shift toward greater sustainability—ranging from sourcing, manufacturing, and transportation to products themselves—companies could tap the CMO to implement changes in these areas.

Growth strategist

The central focus for a growth strategist is on corporate development and strategic partnership, often outside of the core business (see sidebar “Pietro Antonio Tataranni, CMO and Senior Vice President, Global R&D, Life Sciences, PepsiCo”). The CMO in this archetype also focuses on identifying adjacent opportunities through product and service extensions—such as pharmacies, clinics, data insights, digital health capabilities, and market access.

In the coming years, this archetype will likely expand to encompass developing partnerships and contributing to growth (see sidebar “Diana Han, Chief Health and Well-Being Officer, Unilever”). Responsibilities could also include helping to spearhead M&A with an eye toward building momentum and further refining a more integrated offering.

In discussions with ten CMOs, we found that the policy maker and culture carrier archetype is the most relevant to the role and the archetype where CMOs spend most of their time. Once the pandemic abates, CMOs expect their responsibilities in two of the archetypes, the policy maker and culture carrier and the growth strategist, to shift the most as they embrace more responsibility (exhibit).

Chief medical officers and chief health officers say the policy maker and culture carrier archetype is most relevant to their role.

Future challenges, opportunities and priorities

The pandemic challenged not just the physical health but also the mental well-being of employees and consumers. As executives look ahead, they do so with a deeper understanding of the full array of factors that contribute to overall health. An examination of three high-priority areas for CMOs in the coming years reinforces this dynamic.

Health equity

The United States spends more than $4 trillion on healthcare each year,1 yet it ranks last among all developed countries in healthcare system performance.2 In addition, 45 percent of Americans have chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension3—and health disparities continue to affect people of color and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. CMOs have an opportunity and a responsibility to address these ongoing disparities. And since improvements in population health can reduce cost of care, CMOs have a direct role to play within their organization and society. CMOs could contribute by harnessing additional consumer insights available to their organization to tackle health issues—for example, by leveraging advanced analytics to combine point-of-sale data with consumer health data to identify ways to further support consumers in improving their health.

Environmental, social, and governance

In the past several years, there has been an explosion in activity around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues in the private sector, due in part to pressure from investors, shareholders, employees, and the general public. Since ESG encompasses hot-button issues such as climate change and diversity, equity, and inclusion, it has become one of the most important priorities today. CMOs are well positioned to encourage corporate America to embrace a broad view of equity and diversity for two reasons: First, gauging corporate progress on health and wellness will experience heightened scrutiny in the years ahead. And second, corporations have the power to positively effect change through their culture and ways of working. CMOs can contribute by ensuring that their organizations use the right metrics to track progress and that overall organizational commitments align with industry best practices.

Mental health

The impact of the pandemic on employee mental health and well-being has been widespread. Isolation due to remote work, stress related to caring for family members during lockdown, and financial anxieties have been draining for employees, and many are operating with depleted emotional reserves. Many organizations have become aware of the ways in which individuals are struggling and have undertaken efforts to provide additional support and resources. As companies consider calling employees back to work in the office—even on a hybrid schedule—CMOs are well positioned to monitor overall well-being and ensure that the employee experience is a consistent priority.

Given the evolving nature and growing importance of the CMO role, these executives should continue engaging with key stakeholders on the most pressing issues. But getting the most from this role requires a clear definition of the CMO’s tasks, and CEOs should ensure the CMO’s responsibilities are aligned with overall company priorities and strategies.

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