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Too many ‘chiefs’ strip accountability from people who actually run the business

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal June 9, 2024.

Chief officer titles continue to proliferate. Years ago, the title chief officer was reserved for the chief executive officer, chief operating officer and chief financial officer to identify the three C-suite positions of an organization. These positions are typically the designated legal officers of the company, unlike other positions now designated chief officer.

In a December 2022 column, I wrote that chief officer titles had expanded to include the positions of  chief information officer, chief strategy officer, chief compliance officer, chief marketing officer and chief human resources officer.

The use of the chief officer title continues to grow to now include chief digital marketing officer, chief cloud officer, chief AI officer, chief diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) officer, chief restructuring officer, chief ethics officer, chief sustainability officer, chief impact officer, chief listening officer, chief knowledge officer and even chief Twitter (now X) officer. I could go on and on. Formerly, many of these positions would have once carried a manager designation or not exist at all.

When is it justified to name a chief officer, rather than being a case of job title inflation? A chief officer position may be justified when the position is mission critical to the success of the organization or when the position needs maximum credibility when dealing with people outside the organization. The chief officer position, however, must never overlap or dilute the responsibilities of executive line or staff management.

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By their title, positions labeled chief officer are considered as senior positions, whereas a manager title is considered to be a mid-level position. An organization needs to label a position consistent with the marketplace or they risk not getting the best talent to fill that position.

In multi-business unit organizations, the naming of chief officers beyond those that are mission critical at the corporate level becomes problematic. Who do you hold accountable for results—the chief officer, or the executive leading a business unit or the executive leading a staff unit?

Strategy, for example, should be developed and owned by the operating executive, not the chief strategy officer who isn’t responsible for execution. Without ownership of the strategy, implementation will not be effective. A staff support position can be designated to assist the operating executive in developing strategy.

A downside to naming so many chief officers is organizational bloat and expense. Chief officers will want to build out their organization with staff, increasing overhead costs. Rather than add staff to organizations outside of the line operating organization, it is much more cost effective to add staff expertise at lower levels. Organizations need less chiefs and more people who actually do the work.

Many areas that are led by chief officers are actually the responsibility of line operating and staff unit executives within the company. For example, line operating executives are held accountable for results in the areas of sustainability, strategy and innovation and therefore have ownership of them. If a line executive needs expertise in these areas, it can be provided by staffers with that subject matter expertise. These areas certainly don’t justify a chief title.

Job title inflation has a downside. Unless the job description and title accurately reflect the duties and responsibilities of the position, an organization can run into internal equity issues. If an employee is granted an inflated title, others within the organization may also want their job title inflated.

Exercise care when bestowing a chief officer title. Ensure it is justified. Be very clear as to who will be held accountable for results if the position overlaps with the responsibilities of a line or staff leadership position. Bestow a chief officer title only when the position is mission critical to the success of the company.

Stan Silverman is a former CEO and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read columnist on leadership. He can be reached at stan@silvermanleadership.com.

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