“What and who is an executive?” may seem like an odd topic for me to write about.
I mean, I know what an executive is. I’ve been working with executive job seekers for more than 25 years.
But I find that there’s confusion on the part of some of them about whether or not they actually ARE “executives”.
Here’s something that happens to me all the time:
People like Vice Presidents, General Managers or those at and above the Director level (clearly executives by most any definition) ask me:
“Will you consider working with me . . . even though I’m not at the executive level yet?”
I’m baffled every time.
Unless the definition of executive has shifted over the years, for all my years as a job search and careers professional, I’ve considered someone to be an executive when they manage others and have decision-making authority.
This doesn’t necessarily mean being “a suit”. Even some CEOs (unquestionably executives) don’t wear suits.
Dictionary.com lists its first definition of the noun “executive” as:
“A person or group of persons having administrative or supervisory authority in an organization.”
How One Esteemed Expert Answers the Question “Who is an Executive?”
The late Peter F. Drucker‘s seminal book on management, The Effective Executive (1967), was quoted in the Fast Company article, Who Is an Executive?
“I have called “executives” those knowledge works, managers, or individual professionals who are expected by virtue of their position or their knowledge to make decisions in the normal course of their work that have impact on the performance and results of the whole.
What few yet realize, however is how many people there are even in the most humdrum organization of today, whether business or government agency, research lab or hospital, who have to make decisions. For the authority of knowledge is surely as legitimate as the authority of position. These decisions, moreover, are of the same kind as the decision of top management.
The most subordinate, we now know, may do the same kind of work as the president of the company or the administrator of the government agency, that is, plan, organize, integrate, motivate, and measure. His compass may be quite limited, but within his sphere, he is an executive.”
What About the C-suite or C-level Executive Level?
C-suite or c-level executives are the top-rung corporate “chiefs”. C-suite job titles include:
- Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
- Chief Experience Officer (CXO)
- Chief Operating or Operations Officer (COO)
- Chief Information Officer (CIO)
- Chief Investment Officer (CIO)
- Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
- Chief Brand or Banking Officer (CBO)
- Chief Compliance Officer (CCO)
- Chief Technology or Technical Officer (CTO)
- Chief Finance or Financial Officer (CFO)
- Chief Learning or Legal Officer (CLO)
In the Fast Company article, Your C-Suite Is Way Too Crowded, Russell Fleischer, general partner with Battery Ventures, says that “c-level fever” is sweeping its way through the corporate world.
He notes some of the newer c-level titles:
- Chief Revenue Officer (CRO)
- Chief Customer Officer (CCO)
- Chief Product Officer (CPO)
- Chief Communications Officer (CCO)
- Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)
- Chief Listening Officer (CLO)
- Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)
. . . And even more C-level executive job titles
Job Search and Career Expert Alison Doyle adds to this list in an article on The Balance:
- Chief Accounting Officer (CAO)
- Chief Applications Architect (CAA)
- Chief Administrative Officer (CAO)
- Chief Contracting Officer (CCO)
- Chief Data Officer (CDO)
- Chief Development Officer (CDO)
- Chief Information Technology Officer (CITO)
- Chief Risk Officer (CRO)
- Chief Underwriting Officer (CUO)
- Chief Procurement Officer (CPO)
You see that some of the above use the same acronyms as others at the c-level, but with a different significance.
Why Are There So Many C-suite Executive Job Titles?
The reasoning for this ever-growing c-suite alphabet soup, according to Fleischer:
“Some companies like to craft new positions with fancy titles just in order to appear like they’re paying attention to a particular business function. Others use C-level titles to combat the shortage of high-level talent in sought-after fields. CEOs and recruiters figure that if they give someone a “Chief Something” title, instead of a more-traditional VP or SVP role, an on-the-fence job candidate might be more likely to sign on the dotted line.”
LinkedIn’s Research on C-suite Roles on the Rise
LinkedIn’s 2022 Workforce Report analyzed more than 500,000 C-suite positions in the U.S., as listed on LinkedIn profiles. Data was segmented by title from January 1 through December 31, 2022. Results were compared with the same periods in 2021 and 2019. Only titles with at least 50 hires in 2022 were analyzed.
What’s the difference between a Chief People Officer (CPO) and Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)?
LinkedIn’s Senior Editor at large, George Anders, answers that question in response to someone commenting on his LinkedIn article about the findings:
“What I hear back from chief people officers is that they regard the CPO title as covering a broader sense of responsibilities than a CHRO might span.
One common example involves corporate expansion decisions, where the CPO gets to sit alongside the leadership of the real-estate team to talk about available labor pools in different metros or even within different parts of the same metro.
Another example includes acquisition discussions, especially in tech, where CPOs aim to get involved earlier, with a human capital/employee stockholdings perspective that can affect the overall deal price.
Each job can define its scope in unique ways. . . . In many situations CPOs and CHROs responsibilities may be quite similar. Even so, the roles can vary enough that we chose to keep them distinct.”
What the 3-year analysis shows
Anders noted the three most important findings in the report:
- Four C-suite titles have seen hiring growth of more than 100% since 2019. They are: chief diversity and inclusion officer (+168.9%), chief delivery officer (+165.6%), chief people officer (+144.3%) and chief growth officer (+117.5%).
- Many — but not all — of these three-year standouts also were hiring favorites last year, compared against 2021’s levels. Specifically, last year’s fastest-growing C-suite titles were paced by chief growth officers, chief people officers and chief program officers, all of which saw a hiring surge of 30% or more.
- By contrast, opportunities for chief diversity officers did not keep gaining last year. Even though this had been the C-suite title with the fastest hiring growth in 2020 and 2021, hiring for this role declined 4.51% in 2022.
And he sums up the findings:
“More broadly, the C-suite titles with the fastest hiring growth tend to oversee areas where organizations want to get better in a hurry. The role of chief people officer, for example, has risen to prominence at many tech companies, as part of an overall desire to be smarter about hiring and retention, to have a fuller understanding of hybrid work — and to think more strategically about workplace culture.
Chief delivery officers are becoming more common in fields such as IT services, software development and business consulting. They may sit downstream from product and sales teams, but their entry into the C-suite gives them more clout to make sure that clients are truly getting the benefits, functionality and timeliness that’s been promised.
The rise of titles such as “chief growth officer” and “chief revenue officer” speak to a more holistic approach to the ways that functions such as marketing, sales, product and finance all work together. Such roles have existed in consulting companies for a while; they now are becoming more common in fields such as advertising, health care and financial services, too.”
More C-suite Roles That May Start To Appear
The relatively new c-suite roles may soon be joined by others, noted Chief.com:
- Chief Metaverse Officer — connecting the real world with the virtual one
- Chief Wellness Officer — addressing employees’ mental, physical, emotional, and financial needs
- Chief Remote Officer — managing the complexities of a distributed workforce, by leading compensation, culture, and cybersecurity.
- Chief Cohesion Officer — bringing the scattered parts of hybrid working together
What Does All of This Say About Companies Moving Forward?
Anders noted in a previous LinkedIn Workforce Insights report:
“These rankings aren’t just a tip sheet for ambitious people looking to rocket into top leadership. They also provide clues about companies’ ever-changing priorities. No matter what the domain, when companies want to fix problems fast or make the most of new opportunities — it’s common to signal those ambitions by adding a C-suite leader.”
Who Is an Executive? What Do You Think?
At what level does someone become an executive?
When does someone who has been contributing for several years and adding value to a company or organization get to call herself an executive?