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It’s standing room only in the C-Suite

When it comes to corporate careers, you know you’ve made it when you gain entry to the mahogany environs of the C-suite. ‘C’ being for ‘chief’ - as in Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and Chief Operating Officer (COO), or the big three ‘C’heeses.

But rather like ‘exclusive’ airline clubs, the C-suite is not so rarefied these days and tends to be standing-room only. Which is to say that ‘C’ might easily stand for ‘crowded’.

"While it is true running a company today is a highly complex… the panoply of chiefdoms does raise interesting questions about the role of the modern CEO."
Leo D’Angelo Fisher, Freelance journalist

Some of the latter-day ‘C’s include Chief Digital Officer (CDO), Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), Chief Innovation Officer (CIO), Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Chief Risk Officer (CRO), Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

The reasons for the proliferation of ‘C’ positions are as various as the titles themselves: a corporate statement about the importance attached to the particular function, a desire by the CEO to clearly identify the senior leadership team, a reflection of the executive’s clout, a grand title to make up for a not so grand remuneration package, and sometimes because the ‘C’ holder demands it.

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BARGAINING MUSCLE

A recruitment consultant explains some companies may start off looking for a ‘head’ or ‘general manager’ but candidates with bargaining muscle can sometimes negotiate a title more to their liking. Then there are the retrospective titles.

“LinkedIn is full of these titles,” the recruiter scoffed during a splendid lunch. “Occasionally someone will give themselves the title after the event, so that someone who was maybe head of HR becomes Chief Human Capital Officer in his LinkedIn profile.”

Some titles, no matter how grand or unusual, are a perfect fit – even if they do invite titters in the corridor.

When Vint Cerf joined Google in 2005 he was ordained Chief Internet Evangelist. Cerf was unfazed by the unusual chiefdom and carries the title to this day. After all, this is someone whose LinkedIn profile matter-of-factly states: “I am the co-inventor of the Internet”.

Unlike Al Gore – or Malcolm Turnbull for that matter – he really did invent the Internet (along with Robert Kahn), so he’s entitled to call himself pretty well anything he likes. And as for the religious overtones, Cerf has that covered: “I’m Geek orthodox”.

Not only is there a proliferation of C-titles, but they seem to be getting ever-more expansive.

Perry White would not have been happy working for US beverages behemoth Coca-Cola, whose corporate cup runneth over with C-monikers. They include Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), Chief People Officer (CPO), Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Chief Customer and Commercial Leadership Officer (CCCLO), Chief Public Affairs and Communications Officer (CPACO) and – brace yourself – Chief Quality, Safety and Sustainable Operations Officer (CQSSOO).

C-suites are no less crammed with newcomers in Australia. Fairfax Media has a Chief Product Officer (CPO) – which is presumably a part-time job; Insurance Australia Group has a Chief Customer Officer (CCO), Deloitte Australia has a Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) and Myer’s C-Suite includes a Chief Transformation Officer (CTO), Chief Digital & Data Officer (CDDO) and Chief Merchandise & Customer Officer (incumbent CMCO Daniel Bracken is also Deputy CEO).

If bustling C-suites are causing confusion, consider the mayhem in the executive carpark: is the spot marked “CIO” reserved for the Chief Information Officer, the Chief Innovation Officer, the Chief Investment Officer or the Chief Integrity Officer?

PANOPLY OF CHIEFDOMS

While it is true running a company today is a highly complex and volatile endeavour – hardly surprising with all the disruption going on – the panoply of chiefdoms does raise interesting questions about the role of the modern CEO.

Why does a CEO need a Chief Strategy Officer? Or a Chief Transformation Officer? Aren’t these the CEO’s job?

George Bradt, leadership author and contributor to Forbes magazine, has called for the elimination of the Chief Innovation Officer position, arguing “innovation is too important to be left to the Chief Innovation Officer”.

“The whole premise behind a Chief Innovation Officer goes beyond useless to completely and utterly counterproductive,” he fumes.  “If one person is in charge of innovation, everyone else are [sic] not. And they must be.”

“So: no Chief Innovation Officers. No distinctions between scientific, artistic and interpersonal leaders. Everyone is responsible for innovating, creating and leading.”

Bradt is unlikely to get his way. Chief Innovation Officers are all the rage at the moment and will continue to be for some time – at least if the global conference circuit is anything to go by.

The Chief Innovation Officer Summit is on a world tour and will be appearing later this year in Sydney (September 6 to 7), Shanghai (September 7 to 8), Hong Kong (October 19 to 20), London (October 19 to 20) and New York (December 5 to 6).

The speakers lined up for these events reveals a potpourri of innovation-leadership handles:

Chief Product Accelerator (L’Oréal); Chief Experience Officer (Brilliant Basics); Chief Learning Officer (MasterCard); Chief Innovation Manager (Nestle); Head of Innovation Culture (Swiss Post); Innovation Leader (Smurfit Kappa); Head of Strategic Innovation (SNS Bank); Head of Strategy, Innovation & Business Development (Novartis); Head of Innovation Incubator (3M); GM Strategy & Innovation, Defence Housing Australia.

ALPHABET SOUP

So what are we to make of what McKinsey & Co has dubbed “the alphabet soup that is today's crowded C-suite”?

Melbourne management consultant Mark Schroffel, principal of Schroffel Consulting, is fed up with “vainglorious titles that convey nothing of substance”.

It’s not just the dizzying array of C-suite titles that bemuse Schroffel. He reels off confounding titles he has encountered on business cards: Enneagram Consultant, Trusted Adviser, Global Entrepreneur Connector and Zentrepreneur.

“Call me old fashioned, but when it comes to describing yourself professionally, I think it’s important to communicate with your audience with language they are likely to understand,” he says.

A radical point of view. But I can’t see it catching on.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher specialises in the practice and malpractice of management. In more than three decades as a business journalist he has worked for BRW, The Australian Financial Review and a range of other business magazines in Australia and Hong Kong. His sometimes acerbic observations of management and its fads has brought him a wide following. He blogs at leodangelofisher.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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