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C-Suite Job Titles: What Do They Really Mean?

Steven McConnell
Updated Jan 23, 2023

How to make sense of the slew of new C-suite titles.

We’re all familiar with executive titles like CEO, CFO and COO. But are you acquainted with your business’s chief experience officer or chief relationship officer? New C-suite titles attempt to describe leadership skills, job roles and position functions more accurately, but the acronyms and their designations can be confusing. We’ll look at traditional and modern C-suite job titles and share their meaning in today’s businesses.

What is the C-suite?

The C-suite (“chief” suite) is a term used to describe an organization’s top senior executives. These high-ranking employees are in charge of big-picture thinking for various departments. For decades, aspiring to the C-suite meant working toward half a dozen jobs; however, over the past several years, new titles have emerged as tech companies – and countless startups – began sprouting up.

Traditional C-suite roles

A company’s number of C-level positions depends on several factors, like its size, industry and mission. At the very least, most companies have about seven primary titles. 

Here’s a breakdown of these traditional C-suite roles: 

Chief executive officer (CEO)

The chief executive officer is the highest-ranking C-suite member and acts as the face of the organization. They can have various leadership styles but typically consult other C-suite members before making major business decisions.

Did you know?Did you know? CEOs must have five presentations ready to go at any given moment, including an investor pitch, vision pitch, board update, announcement speech and thought leadership keynote.

Chief financial officer (CFO)

The chief financial officer works closely with the CEO and oversees the organization’s finances and financial accounting. They help the organization weigh the financial benefits and risks of potential opportunities. All members of the finance team and accounting department 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 organizational marketing goals, create marketing plans 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 skills, this exec has technical skills (e.g., coding, programming and project management).

TipTip: If there’s an emergency and the power goes out, use a fail-safe lock if a locked door would endanger lives. If an unlocked door puts your business at risk, use a fail-secure lock.

Did you know? There’s some overlap between CMO and CIO responsibilities. CIOs evaluate and implement the organization’s tech solutions, but CMOs who lead marketing initiatives also have a vested interest.

Chief human resources officer (CHRO)

The chief human resources officer is similar to the COO. However, their focus is directly on human resources management and culture initiatives instead of overall business operations. Smaller organizations may need only 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 the organization’s legal matters, including business lawsuits.

TipTip: Smaller companies may opt to develop a relationship with a business lawyer instead of having a general counsel on staff.

Modern-day C-suite roles

As technology, customer service and sustainability gained vital importance in business, leaders saw a need to create additional C-level positions to manage these functions. Designating someone to one of these C-suite positions shows employees, customers, vendors and investors that the company considers that particular area to be of the utmost importance. 

Here are some of today’s popular modern C-suite roles: 

Chief data officer (CDO)

The chief data officer is responsible for overseeing data-related business functions, including 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 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 to help the organization move forward.

Chief product officer (CPO)

The chief product officer, also known as the head of product or vice president of product, oversees any product-related business activity, including product creation, product labeling, product launches and product quality. They are responsible for ensuring the organization creates a valuable product for consumers 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 – a great customer experience. Their responsibility is to ensure that the organization’s consumers have a good experience with the products or services offered.

FYIFYI: A truly delightful customer experience includes an integrated, omnichannel customer service strategy that handles customers’ needs where it’s most convenient for them.

Chief sustainability officer (CSO)

The chief sustainability officer is responsible for overseeing an organization’s environmental programs and sustainable business model. They analyze the business’s current processes and create strategies to improve their sustainability and long-term impact.

Chief relationship officer (CRO)

The chief relationship officer is responsible for high-level relationships with strategic partners, sales channel partners and business development organizations. This person ensures the company’s values and vision are expressed properly in these vital relationships and oversees related sales and revenue-producing activities across the company.

Did you know?Did you know? In a survey of C-suite executives and business owners from the Business Journals Research Intelligence group, nearly half (47%) said their companies needed to expand strategic partnerships to achieve profitable growth.

Why C-suite job titles need to adapt

A rigid corporate infrastructure can stifle a modern, growing company. In contrast, letting C-suite job functions evolve keeps organizations agile and ready to pivot to emerging trends. 

Here are a few reasons why C-suite job titles must adapt: 

1. Big-picture thinking is bigger than the CEO.

Big-picture thinking was once limited to the CEO. Today, this is no longer the case. A strong leadership team that understands the fundamentals of business along with niche specialties can work together to lead an organization into the future. 

For example, CFOs are no longer just about number-crunching; they must be true company strategists. And CMOs handle more than marketing initiatives. They have input into innovation, product development, sales and marketing across multiple platforms. 

2. The future of corporate structure looks flatter.

In 2015, American entrepreneur Brian Robertson saw a need to eliminate middle management from his Philadelphia-based software startup. It was an idea that spread across Silicon Valley – and the world – to become known as holacracy, a self-management system that distributes power among employees and teams. 

The most famous example of this theory in action is Zappos. Other examples include video game company Valve and book subscription firm Blinkist. Online platform Medium ran with a holacratic system until 2016, when it opted for a structure that included a blend of management systems.  

Whether or not companies embrace holacracy, many are open to hybrid management systems and new trends that won’t work with a rigid corporate structure. 

3. Businesses need thought leaders to direct growth.

According to research from PwC, over 77% of CEOs say creative thinking is the most important leadership quality. However, a rigid C-suite doesn’t foster the necessary creativity and innovation a growing company needs. Expanding C-suite job titles and functions helps attract the out-of-the-box thinking and new perspectives companies need to stay ahead of industry trends and business innovations.  

Creative C-suite titles may attract ambitious free-thinkers eager to enact change and grow their careers. 

4. The customers’ needs are taking center stage.

Newer C-suite titles are tailored to customer needs. For example, CXOs aim to create an ideal customer experience, and CPOs focus on product elements that will best appeal to a target audience. Even traditional C-suite titles are keeping customers’ needs top of mind. For example, CMOs create marketing strategies designed to appeal to target audiences. 

Bottom LineBottom Line: Businesses that want to improve employee retention are employing chief happiness officers – C-suite execs who focus on ensuring employees are happy and satisfied.

Modern-day C-suite roles attract creative, dynamic executive team members and fill needs that ultimately benefit customers. As business and industry trends appear, expect more C-suite job titles to crop up and traditional roles to expand.

Jennifer Dublino contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. 

Image Credit: UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock
Steven McConnell
business.comb.
I'm a digital marketing wingman to bootstrapped startups; I specialise in helping them grow from $100K to $5m in revenue. Currently, I'm the Marketing Director at Arielle Careers and the business has grown on average 350% every year for the past 4 years.