May 12, 2021
The C-suite makeup is more diverse now than it's ever been. Although both VP and C-suite roles exist at some companies, in other cases the C titles have replaced VP titles.
The mix of C-suite titles varies from company to company for a variety of reasons such as size, revenue, industry, and priorities. According to Jeff Wong, chief innovation officer at multinational professional services firm EY, a new C-suite title tends to reflect the importance the organization places on the role.
"We're a 150-year-old organization. For 145 of those [years], we didn't need an innovation function separately to continue to evolve and grow," said Wong. "The CEO suddenly realized that the speed at which this change is happening means that I need to elevate the concept of this change in my organization."
How does innovation differ from R&D? Technically, they both involve innovation. The difference is the former places an emphasis on real-world viability.
"I have some supreme PhDs who are way smarter than me working in my team, which historically would have been in one of those amazing top-end labs," said Wong. "But there was a recognition that you've got to connect what happened there to some outcome in the real world."
Relatively New C-Suite Titles
Some of the more recent additions to C-suites in addition to the Chief Innovation Officer include:
Chief Data Officer (CDO)
Chief Analytics Officer (CAO)
Chief Digital Officer
Chief Transformation Officer
Chief AI Ethics Officer
Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (aka Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer)
Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)
The CDO and CAO roles may exist within the same company or not. If they do, one may report to the other.
"We need a Chief Data Officer because data is really, really important, and then you start to see this realization that you don't really do anything with the data so then you needed a Chief Analytics Officer," said Wong. "Then there's this [realization that] it really isn't just the data and the analytics, so we need a Chief Digital Officer. Sometimes, what you see by the different titles is an evolution of the company's understanding of what they need to change, evolve, grow and innovate so that's why you're seeing all these titles rise up."
Jeff Wong, EY
Sometimes a CIO role will evolve into the Chief Digital Officer role because the company has reached a tipping point in its digital transformation. In other cases, a Chief Digital Officer is brought in because the CIO role is viewed as moving at a slower pace or the company lacks solid digital expertise.
A Chief Transformation Officer can also drive digital transformation and when they do, they tend to have a broader role that ensures the appropriate change management occurs. Bhushan Sethi, global people & organization co-leader at multinational professional services network PwC said it's "a classic people, processes and technology role."
The Chief AI Ethics Officer role is rare these days. Some companies already have a Chief Ethics Officer, but unlike a Chief AI Ethics Officer that person may lack the same level of knowledge about AI and machine learning.
The Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer or Chief Diversity, Inclusion & Equity Officer role is gaining steam because there is greater recognition now that workforces should be diverse -- not only for reasons of fairness, but because the diversity results in a richer set of perspectives. It can also help minimize some of the traditional "old white guy" biases that have become so offensive today which include sexism and racism.
The Chief Information Security Officer role is newer than the Chief Security Officer role. The former focuses specifically on cybersecurity whereas the latter focuses on physical security and safety. However, again, there are no absolutes since companies may define roles differently. Also, the two roles can co-exist at the same company.
C-suite Roles That Have Evolved
The Chief Digital Officer role has evolved to the point of extinction in some organizations.
"About five years ago, a lot more firms put Chief Digital Officers in place because [they] wanted to have a real digital strategy across all of their customer interfaces, across all their people, all their interactions with different stakeholders," said PwC's Sethi. "Fast forward five years and those same companies do not have Chief Digital Officers because digital is just the way they do business."
Bhushan Sethi, PwC
Sethi also said that Chief Sustainability Officers are moving into the Chief Purpose Inclusion Officer or a similar role which is responsible for social responsibility.
Mix of C-Suite Roles Says Something About Your Company, But Beware
New C-suite titles tend to reflect the fact that the business is placing greater emphasis on something. However, creating C-suite roles just for appearances is a bad idea
"You might create a Chief Innovation Officer role, but you may not have a very innovative culture … ," said Sethi. "If you don't have the right incentives, the right processes and the right trust amongst your employees and other stakeholders, then it may do more harm than good because people will see through it. You've created something you can't execute."
Other C-Suite Titles That May Emerge
Some of the C-suite roles mentioned above may be "new" to certain companies but not new as a concept. Others might be entirely new. For example, Sethi said he could see a Chief Stakeholder Officer who is in charge of brand, reputation and influencing stakeholders. And guess what? Airbnb already has one.
"All of these things -- ESG, sustainability, transformation, growth, M&A -- if they're not things that you can measure and it's not going to be a strength throughout the way you run your business, then just putting people in those roles for various reasons will be necessary, but definitely not sufficient," said Sethi. "If you're the head of M&A and you can't pull the trigger on any acquisitions or you have a global role that ends up working domestically, it's a bit of a struggle. You've really got to make sure you're sending the right signals and it's executed."
Reporting structures also say something about a company. For example, at Community Health Network, the CIO reports to the CAO because the company values data analytics so highly. However, C-suite reporting structures also vary from company to company.
C-suites are evolving, but not necessarily uniformly. One needs only look at the business and technology trends to see why the roles that exist today do exist.
However, there should be an actual need for the roles in any particular company as well as the opportunity for that role to make a difference. How your company's C-suite should evolve depends on its business priorities.
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