Why Some Newer C-Suite Titles Fail

Corporate C-suites continue to expand, but the success rate of the newer positions depends on many things.

Lisa Morgan, Freelance Writer

June 5, 2024

6 Min Read
Cubes form the abbreviations 'CFO, CTO, COO, CMO and CEO' as symbol for hierarchy of the leadership in a company
Frank Harms via Alamy Stock

Today’s C-suite is more likely to include non-traditional roles such as chief data officer, chief innovation officer, chief analytics officer and chief AI officer. While the mix of roles varies among companies -- as do the responsibilities associated with such titles -- the entire point of the new roles is to add expertise and accountability to areas in need. 

Some of the roles may report to the CIO or the CEO directly. In rare cases, the CIO might report to a chief digital officer or other new title or be “promoted” to one of those roles, such as chief digital officer since the world has gone digital. What mix of titles a business has depends on what it does, what its priorities are, the competitive landscape and the people involved. 

“The reason roles like chief data officer and chief innovation officer are failing is that companies are looking for established IT leaders to fill them. While these positions involve managing technical aspects, they primarily require individuals with business acumen and the ability to harness technology for growth,” says Chris Heard, chief executive officer at software sourcing platform Olive Technologies. “Understanding the ins and outs of the networking constraints is not as relevant. Also, traditional C-suite folks often lack an entrepreneurial spirit. I believe candidates with prior entrepreneurial experience, especially those who have spearheaded innovative ventures, are better suited for these trailblazing positions.” 

Related:Go Big or Go Home: The CDO/CDAO’s Guide to AI Leadership

New C-suite titles are being driven by the board 

Some boards are insisting that new roles be created because technology and ways of doing business are changing and they don’t want the company competitively disadvantaged. 

“There’s an expectation of boards that to stay relevant you [need to] drive some of these different initiatives and changes in different technology areas,” says Ryan Worobel, CIO at secure, cloud-based monitoring company Logic Monitor. “It’s a push from boards, shareholders and external [parties] who have an expectation, so to appease a lot of that, companies have these knee-jerk reactions and create roles and then sort them out afterwards.” 

As Niranjan Ramsunder, chief technology officer and head of data services at IT services provider UST points out, several of the new titles are reactions to technology trends. For example, the CIO used to focus on corporate and backend apps, but they are now helping employees become more productive and making employees’ jobs easier. So, the first move was to supplement the CIO role with a CTO to ensure technologies and networking connectivity work.  

Related:Why CTOs Must Become Better Storytellers

Then, as the world began competing on data, the chief data officer role emerged, followed by the chief analytics officer who enables data driven decision-making. Then, digital transformation drove the emergence of the chief digital officer. Similarly, the explosion of technology and device types expanded corporate attack surfaces, necessitating the chief information security officer role. Some organizations have appointed chief AI officers whose expertise includes data science, statistics, machine learning, AI and AI-related training which require a different skillset than the typical CIO has. 

“We are finding more of a need for AI officers and people asking for people who think along those lines because the skills are different, and the salary levels are different. [Organizations] have to call them ‘chief AI officer’ just to keep them in the organization,” says Ramsunder. 

Some consolidation is happening. For example, some organizations may have to have a chief data officer and a chief analytics officer, though it’s more common to have a single, consolidated role covering both areas. Ramsunder also says the chief strategy and chief innovation roles are merging because they both have a consultative role in the organization. 

Related:MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Highlights CIO Leaders, Innovative Startups

At UST, the CIO is responsible for internal IT while Ramsunder, as CTO, helps customers better utilize technology. More recently, he’s been tasked with overseeing some services, including data analytics, across the organization. 

“I now have a bigger number in terms of responsibility. I may be responsible for 20% of the company versus 2% and that should be the same for anyone looking for a job,” Ramsunder says. “Where is it that I created an impact? How do you measure it and how much freedom do you have to [accomplish] it?” 

Do This, Not That 

Nick Stepro, chief product and technology officer at healthcare data platform Arcadia, says in an email interview that organizations must overcome three major challenges when creating new and less traditional C-suite roles: 

  • Opaque missions with heavy overlap. If an organization is not diligent in structuring the leadership team, the C-levels may have missions that are nebulous or opaque and could overlap with their C-suite peers. For example, if a health insurance company has a chief digital officer, chief technology officer, chief consumer officer and chief data officer, who's responsible for member-facing mobile apps? That's a hard enough question when there are only two of those roles, he says. Without well-defined lanes, you could create conflict, redundant work, or demotivation. 

  • Lack of authority. Good people in C-suite roles need real authority to execute a vision and strategy. It’s equally important that these roles not be viewed as a service center to implement and consequently starved of the opportunity to strategize and own their outcomes. 

  • Inflexibility in a changing landscape. Few people anticipated what AI would do to workforces so quickly. We are working in a very dynamic time where strategies change and cultures evolve. Roles that were relevant to an organization five years ago may not be anymore. 

Instead, businesses should: 

  • Have early defined expectations. Be explicit about what a role will deliver to your organization and that the outcomes truly necessitate a C-suite position. These expectations should be explicitly understood by the person in that seat and their peers. 

  • Create lanes for accountability. Clear lanes of operation are, perhaps counterintuitively, very freeing. They create the boundaries within which someone can be creative, define a strategy, and own the execution of that strategy. 

  • Obsess over people and culture. Organizations can spend too much time protecting structure and titles and not enough time finding and embracing the right leaders. Think less about the role and more about the culture you’re trying to build. Then never stop looking for those with the skills and abilities to further that culture and lead by example. 

About the Author(s)

Lisa Morgan

Freelance Writer

Lisa Morgan is a freelance writer who covers business and IT strategy and emerging technology for InformationWeek. She has contributed articles, reports, and other types of content to various publications and sites ranging from SD Times to the Economist Intelligent Unit. Frequent areas of coverage include big data, mobility, enterprise software, the cloud, software development, and emerging cultural issues affecting the C-suite.

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