Complexity and change beg for simplicity and control in every organization. Creating dedicated leadership roles responsible for specific aspects of change is common. These are the new “C” level roles.
These leaders are “chiefs” of their domain responsible for advancing the company in terms of that particular domain. (see side note at the bottom). Chief Digital Officers – digital transformation, Chief Marketing Officers – brand and market image, etc. The list is long. Here are some of the Chief Officers I have encountered in my career. They are in alphabetical order:
Supply Chain Officer
Information Security Officer
The list is long. Many companies have at least one or two of these roles outside of the normal group of CEO, CFO, CHRO, CIO. The proliferation of these titles is a modern phenomenon driven as much by the rate of change as well as the complexity of modern corporations.
A Pantheon of Leaders
A pantheon is a group of particularly respected, famous, or important people. The executive team with all of these chief roles represents a pantheon of leaders. Basic corporate governance creates the need for CEO and CFO roles which often includes seats on the Board of Directors.
Creating additional “C” level roles often reflects business trends and strategic initiatives. The CHRO role and CIO role reflect their leadership over critical corporate resources. Roles like the Chief Process Officer or Chief Digital Officer reflect strategic focus on transforming the organization in ways that cut across roles. In many cases such roles are transient, fading as the company completes its transition toward the focused goal of the X officer.
Assigning leaders to drive particular aspects of the business and its strategy on the surface. A lead executive creates an organizational focal point with potential accountabilities and responsibilities. In my experience, this works well in the following situations:
The executive team has a track record of collaborating together and down through their organizations. A CXO created to make groups work together often exacerbates divisions.
The executive team willingly reassigns resources and organizational structures to make the CXO position successful, depending on the type of CXO in question.
The executive team takes that CXO’s purpose – the X they are responsible for seriously, its success is part of their compensation plan, there is an environment for a shared win.
The CXO themselves is an open, collaborative and patient person, more teacher than driver, more quietly confident than having to prove themselves at all times.
The CXO enjoys the visible and vocal support of the CEO and Board, support that encourages other executives and competing priorities to work with the CXO and their mission, support that asks for visible updates on progress, not support that assumes their role/sponsorship ends with the appointment of the CXO.
The leadership team and the CXO enter into the strategy with an understanding of the long-term nature of the role, will it endure, will it transition into a new organization? If we do not know we recognize that and have it as part of the initiative. More of a destination than a defined exit strategy or succession plan.
It has been my experience that organizations and the CXO succeeds when these conditions exist. Without these conditions the Pantheon of leaders can become a pack of buyers. The other, darker side of the CXO phenomenon.
Or a Pack of Buyers
The creation of a CXO role formalizes an organizations focus and resources. It also creates a new ‘buyer’ for vendors to sell into. Services and solution sellers have historically heavily influenced the development of CXO roles, in part to create natural buyers for their company.
Service and solution sellers need buyers to sell to. A CXO role is a particularly potent buyer. As seller value propositions and their value realization increasingly cuts across traditional company silo’s, the need to create new executive buyers increase.
Service and solution sellers create demand for these roles through thought leadership. Here is an example from McKinsey, ‘Transformer in chief’: The new chief digital officer. It is not the only example, but a representative one.
On the surface, having a X level person in charge of a complex initiative makes sense. It can also be expensive both in terms of leadership attention, resources and organizational disruption. Executives and teams should deeply consider agreeing to create a particular CXO role when the rational for that role includes:
The observation that other companies have one, or
Their strategic advisor suggests it, or
An internal person advocates for it, or
It’s a requirement to hire a talented executive, or
Other internal organization or political reasons.
These can be valid reasons for creating a new CXO role. The executive team must come to a clear idea regarding the context, challenges and purpose of that role before minting another X-level role.
A pantheon or a pack – which do you have?
Modern organizations face unprecedented demands from customers, competitors, society etc. Complexity further compounds a response as issues like customer centricity, experience, digital transformation, sustainability, etc. require coordinating across company silos. Appointing an executive in charge, a CXO, is one response to these demands. The idea of a single executive leader in charge of a particular challenge has intuitive appeal. It’s a formula that many have employed in the face of change.
Executives and their leadership teams must think through their response to demands for a CXO. It is not a panacea to modern problems. Carefully crafted and continuously updated, specialized CXO roles can strengthen leadership teams and their capacity for focus. Creating such a pantheon of leaders is the desired outcome. That requires vigilance and verification of the context, challenge and purpose of the CXO role. Without such consideration, leadership teams can wind up with a pack of challenge-oriented buyers.
The decision is yours.
Welcome your comments and observations.
A side note: chiefs no more?
The “C” in a c-level position stands for chief. The term based on the title held by a leader of a group of people, often associated with groups of indigenous people. According to the dictionary, a chief is a leader or ruler of a people or clan. Some see the term as derogatory to Native Americans. Others point out that the title has been without regard to ethnic groups. The point of this post is to highlight the proliferation and reasons behind creating multiple C level roles. No offense or opinion regarding what the C stands for is intended or offered.