Where do we draw the line between titles that are relevant versus those that are whimsical?
In recent years, we've seen an increase in "soft" C-suite job titles. Do they mean anything, or are they an exercise in wishful thinking? In the famous Shakespearean balcony scene when Juliet asks Romeo, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," we're reminded that names don't capture the essence. So while the wave of new C-suite titles is not quite of Shakespearean proportions, it does raise a timely question.
What is the C-suite?
The C-suite ("chief" suite) is a term used to describe the top senior executives of an organization. These high-ranking employees are in charge of big-picture thinking for their department. For decades, aspiring to the C-suite meant working toward a set of jobs that could be counted on just over one hand; however, over the past several years, as tech companies began sprouting up (along with startups of all kinds), we've seen new titles emerge.
Traditional C-suite roles
The number of C-level positions a company has depends on several factors, like its size, industry and mission. At the very least, most companies with a C-suite will have a chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operating officer, chief marketing officer, chief information officer and general counsel. In most cases, every member of the C-suite reports to the chief executive officer.
Chief executive officer (CEO)
The chief executive officer is the highest-ranking C-suite member and acts as the face of the organization. They are a true leader of the company, but they often consult other C-suite members before making major business decisions.
Chief financial officer (CFO)
The chief financial officer works closely with the CEO and is in charge of the organization's finances. They help the organization weigh the financial benefits and risks of potential opportunities. All members of the finance and accounting departments ultimately report to the CFO.
Chief operating officer (COO)
The chief operating officer is typically the second in command (after the CEO) and focuses on business operations and HR-related functions. The COO oversees operations relating to recruitment, employee training, payroll, compliance and administration.
Chief marketing officer (CMO)
The chief marketing officer serves as the head of the marketing department. They set organization marketing goals and oversee marketing operations relating to advertising, branding and public relations.
Chief information officer (CIO)
The chief information officer leads the organization in information technology (IT). In addition to possessing leadership and business management skills, this member has technical skills (e.g., coding, programming, project management).
Chief human resources officer (CHRO)
The chief human resources officer is similar to the COO, but their focus is directly on human resources matters and culture initiatives, as opposed to overall business operations. Smaller organizations may only need a COO, whereas larger organizations tend to have both.
General counsel (GC)
The general counsel, also known as a chief counsel or chief legal officer (CLO), is a corporate attorney who heads up all of the organization's legal matters.
Modern-day C-suite roles
As technology, customer service, and sustainability moved to the forefront of business, leaders saw a need to create additional C-level positions to manage these accordingly.
Chief data officer (CDO)
The chief data officer is responsible for overseeing data-related business functions, such as data management, data quality, data strategy, data analytics and business intelligence. They use the data as an asset to draw valuable business insights.
Chief technology (or talent) officer (CTO)
A chief technology officer, not to be confused with the CIO, is responsible for managing an organization's technology solutions. They help solve technology-related problems and implement new tech solutions that will help the organization move forward.
Chief product officer (CPO)
The chief product officer, also known as the head of product or vice president (VP) of product, oversees any product-related business activity. They are responsible for ensuring the organization creates a product that is valuable to both the consumer and the business.
Chief analytics officer (CAO)
The chief analytics officer is similar to the CDO in that they are responsible for collecting and analyzing business data. Although the CDO is primarily responsible for driving value from data, and the CAO is responsible for driving insights from data, the two positions are sometimes merged to create the CDAO.
Chief design officer (CDO)
Although the chief design officer may share an initialism with the chief data officer, the two serve very different purposes. The chief design officer is responsible for overseeing any innovation or design aspects of an organization's product or service.
Chief experience officer (CXO)
The chief experience officer, also known as the customer experience officer, focuses on just that – the customer experience. Their responsibility is to ensure that the organization's consumers have a good experience with the products or services offered.
Chief sustainability officer (CSO)
The chief sustainability officer is responsible for overseeing all of the organization's environmental programs. They analyze the business's current processes and create strategies to improve their sustainability and long-term impact.
Wait, there's more (WTM)
In a handful of companies, a chief information security officer (itself a relatively new title) is now called a "paranoid-in-chief."
And now for something completely different: Back in 2012 (which almost seems like "back in the day"), Vint Cerf at Google was deemed chief internet evangelist. While it's a bit clearer what a paranoid-in-chief does, because we've become familiar with what a CISO is in charge of, the chief internet evangelist role is far murkier
Indeed, Cerf's title raised a mix of intrigue and confusion among customers, some of whom asked him if he was religious. It's not a stretch to imagine that soon CCO (now either chief customer or commercial officer) could also stand for chief coffee officer. But don't tell Starbucks I said so.
Chief listeners out there, listen up.
It was funny at first, but I think we've gone too far.
Seriously, what do these titles really mean, and to whom?
To properly tease this out, we need to uncover why these outliers and often-whimsical titles were created in the first place. This means accepting that our 1950s-era corporate executive structure might be too rigid for today's business world.
Here are four reasons why.
1. Today, big-picture thinking is bigger than the CEO.
While big-picture thinking was once limited to the CEO, in 2020, not so much. No matter what three-letter job abbreviation you're sporting, it is imperative to have strong leadership skills and understand the fundamentals of business.
For CFOs, gone are the days of number crunching to get ahead. According to Forbes, the majority of CEOs want CFOs that are true company strategists.
Same for CMOs. Modern-day companies need a single leader for marketing, business development and imagination. Hence, the CCO was born. (See above, sans the coffee reference.) This is an executive who can manage innovation, product development, marketing and sales across all platforms – digital and brick-and-mortar.
The conclusion? Thought leadership is the most valuable career-building tool for everyone in the C-suite, whether your C-suite title is old-school or new.
2. The future looks flatter.
In 2015, an American entrepreneur named Brian Robertson saw a need to eliminate middle management from his Philadelphia-based software startup.
Rana Florida, holacracy consultant and author of Upgrade: Taking Your Work and Life from Ordinary to Extraordinary, claimed that Zappos' goal was to get more of its people to take charge of themselves. It's easy to see how this philosophical change in corporate structure could lead to our next trend.
3. Influencers everywhere, please.
A past large-scale study of CMOs in 100 British companies showed that a whopping 81% believe their company struggles with original thinking.
So, if the C-suite is expected to own thought leadership, Houston, we have a large problem – one that, I suspect, has left many companies looking for thought leaders outside of the C-suite and among the rank and file. And, of course, outside the walls of their own echo chamber.
Yet another report, this one by Odgers Berndtson (so much research on this topic!), says executives looking to climb the ladder are in pursuit of C-suite titles … even if they don't report to the CEO.
The attraction of this new talent and their big ideas has, in part, fueled the proliferation of fanciful C-based titles. Sally Drexler, a partner at Odgers Berndtson, asserts that smaller and/or privately owned companies with a flat organizational structure (think startups) have the agility to be creative with their titles.
Not surprisingly, Drexler says the more flippant the C-job title, the more resonant it is with prospective C-seeking talent. The last point Drexler makes is that fun C-level titles are much more affordable than serious ones. Two examples: chief happiness officer and chief recreational officer.
4. The customer is king.
Besides attracting new talent, the new C-suite titles are being tailored to customer needs. A great example of this is the chief knowledge officer title that's popular among marketing firms and ad agencies lately. A CKO can oversee strategy, planning, analytics and research capabilities.
CXO – chief user experience officer – is another shiny new customer-centric role. User experience has gained momentum and focus as technology companies strive to compete in a saturated market. Front and center is ensuring their products are intuitive from moment one.
University of Pennsylvania management professor Peter Cappelli says such titles are a clear signal to the customer that the people at the top are listening. However, Cappelli raises the question we've all been thinking but haven't yet uttered ...
Can these titles last?
In the end, I suspect the long-haulers will strike a balance between technical innovation and practical application.
The "soft" C-suite titles with staying power will be highly relevant to customer, employee and business needs. They will look ahead to impactful futuristic trends (not just Bring Your Pet to Work Day). Sure, they will have less power and influence than the "classic" positions, perhaps not reporting to the CEO, but they will have tangible results-focused responsibilities. The titleholder will enjoy vital opportunities to create positive change.
Here's my shortlist of what's here to stay (and why).
- CDO (data): Because data can't fuel smart business decisions if it doesn't tell an accurate and compelling story.
- C P/T O (people/talent): Because of HR's ongoing struggle to be viewed as a strategic partner to the business.
- CIO (innovation): Because the unprecedented rise of technology means no company can rest on its laurels.
- CCO (customer): Because customer needs drive businesses today. And because the customer always will be king.
Now, for the funniest job titles I saw while researching this article.
- Chief bacon consultant
- Chief troublemaker
- Executive sensei
- Dean of pizza
Maybe we should hire a chief viral officer to keep the buzz alive.
Skye Schooley contributed to the writing and research in this article.