C-Suite Job Titles: Have We Gone Too Far?

Business.com / Leadership / Last Modified: November 20, 2017
Photo credit: Zoltan Fabian/Shutterstock

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's in a C-suite job title?

Plenty, if it's yours. Or if you're in pursuit of the said title.

Recent research by Pearl Meyer and Partners indicates that your job title can affect everything from your level of mental exhaustion to your identity.

For decades, aspiring to the C-suite meant working toward a set of jobs that could be counted on just over one hand: 

  • Chief executive officer
  • Chief financial officer
  • Chief operating officer
  • Chief marketing officer
  • Chief information officer
  • Chief human resources officer
  • General counsel

All of these titles have been around long enough to evoke common understanding. And in most cases, the ones below CEO all report to the CEO.

However, over the past five years, as tech companies began sprouting up (along with startups of all kinds), we've seen new acronyms emerge:

  • Chief data officer
  • Chief technology (or talent) officer
  • Chief product (or privacy or people) officer
  • Chief analytics officer
  • Chief design officer
  • Chief experience officer
  • Chief innovation (or information) officer
  • Chief sustainability officer

In a handful of companies, a chief information security officer (in and of 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 outlier, and often, whimsical titles were created in the first place. This means accepting that our 1950's 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 2017, not so much.

In a recent study of the changing C-suite, the Harvard Business Review cited an undeniably consistent finding: No matter what three-letter acronym you're sporting, "technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals."

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.

The HBR study also cited that 21st-century 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. Regardless of 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.

It was an idea that spread across Silicon Valley – and the world – to become known as holacracy. The most famous example of this theory in action is Zappo's.

Rana Florida, holacracy consultant and author of "Upgrade: Taking Your Work and Life from Ordinary to Extraordinary," claimed that Zappo's goal was to get more of their 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 recent large-scale study of CMOs in 100 British companies showed that a whopping 81 percent believe their company struggles with original thinking.

So if the HBR study reveals that 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 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.

Attraction of this new talent and their big ideas has, in part, fueled the proliferation of fanciful C-based titles. Sally Drexler, 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. Ann Morton, chief operating officer of U.S.-based VIA Agency, said their CKO oversees 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 title-holder 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 their 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.

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