Chief executive officers were the first chiefs. These top managers are the ones who report directly to the board of directors. Chief operating officers are probably the next-oldest chiefs. COOs, like CEOs, often carry the additional title of president, and they're the primary people responsible for the daily operations of their companies. At some point, treasurers and vice presidents of finance became chief financial officers. And that's the way things remained for many years. "They were the big three, the ones that ran the company," explains John Challenger, CEO of Chicago executive outplacement company Challenger Gray and Christmas Inc.
Then, a few years ago, companies started labeling the people who ran their computer systems "chief technology officer," "chief information officer" and the like. About the same time, organization charts began displaying chief knowledge officers, who had the job of making sure that good ideas were encouraged to percolate everywhere throughout the company. Those changes opened the gates, and now there is a deluge of chiefs.
Chief proliferation is driven in part by the desire to reward employees with non-financial incentives such as recognition. "We're recognizing people," says Herman. "We're giving people individual status."
Chiefs aren't necessarily paid more than nonchiefs, it turns out, so giving someone a new title can be a particularly inexpensive way to recognize them. "That may be one of the forces behind it," Challenger says. "Companies have been under pressure to keep wages down, and it's a lot easier to give people a title than to give them a raise."
Offering lofty-sounding titles to job candidates is also something firms are doing to entice prospective employees. For instance, Herman recently hired someone to be in charge of finding students for a new training venture. "He's actually a salesperson," reflects Herman. "But what's his title? It's director of admissions. He was associate director of admissions at a college before, so he got a promotion."
What that new employee's title points to, though, is that not all elevated-sounding job names have "chief" in them. Innovative titles may include such appellations as "concierge," "guru," "crusader" and "evangelist." Many nonprofit organizations have executives with titles such as "marketing chairman," drawn, perhaps, from the fact that such groups are often run by committees whose titular heads are usually called chairmen.
The proliferation of chiefs in the business world also has reasons for being, one of which is that businesses and jobs are changing, says Joel M. Koblentz, managing partner of executive search firm Egon Zehnder International in Atlanta. The creation of new business models, such as online retailers, and the requirements of dealing with vastly increased information flow in less time mean that changing job titles are hardly keeping pace with changing duties. "If you took a job description from six months ago for an emerging company and that individual is still in that same job, he's not doing the same job," Koblentz maintains. "The little boxes that have people's titles on them no longer apply."
Of course, you don't need a chief for every person or in every situation. Kesslin presents himself as the president and not the chief community officer when dealing with executives of more buttoned-down corporations. "They wouldn't have any idea what a chief community officer is," says Kesslin. "So I have two business cards."
Herman has two titles as well, and for similar reasons. He is CEO of the Herman Group and the chief creative officer of PeopleLearn.com, his new training venture. Herman explains: At PeopleLearn, he comes up with the ideas, a duty that his title adequately reflects. "One of the reasons I hold the title of CEO of the Herman Group is that once in a while I have to sign some papers that require a signature from someone with that title," he says.
Chief status isn't likely to be extended to every employee, even in such a chief-friendly organization as Let's Talk Business Network. Suggestions for titles such as "chief reception officer" or "chief filing officer" get a discouraging reaction from Kesslin. "I don't know if I would do that," he says. "That starts to stretch it a little bit."
Sometimes it's the employees who scotch plans to elevate themselves to chiefdom. Kesslin recently hired a marketer who had a background as a corporate executive and entrepreneur. "We asked her if she wanted to be called 'chief marketing officer,' " Kesslin says. "She said, 'No, I think people will know what "vice president of marketing" is.' " That's okay with Kesslin. "People have to feel comfortable in their titles," he says. "The title is more about the person and not about the company."
In the mid-1990s, officials at the Pentagon were proposing to increase the number of Marine Corps generals by 18 percent at the same time the Department of Defense was proposing to reduce the total number of people in the service by 25 percent. This practice of having more officers and fewer soldiers was dubbed "topsizing" and was criticized in much the same way that hierarchical command-and-control organizational structures have come under fire in the business world. However, few see substantial risks in adding to the number of chiefs in your company.
"I don't see any downside from creating a role for someone whom they feel proud of," says Kesslin. Herman, too, says that adding chiefs is a solution to problems, not a source of them. "We're trying to flatten organizations and get people working together," he says. "We're emphasizing cooperation rather than hierarchy." According to Herman, cooperation is easier when everyone is a chief.
Of course, unlike executive pay scales, which seemingly have no upper limit these days, there is a finite number of elevated titles to hand out in any organization. "The question is, where can they go from here?" asks Challenger. "After chief where do you go? Majesty?" The answer is, predictably, why not? And in addition to chairmen, evangelists and gurus, jobs with "king" in the title have been reported.
Meanwhile, at Let's Talk Business Network, the cadre of chiefs, already numbering four out of the seven employees, is expected to increase shortly as Kesslin's vice president of marketing acquiesces to his request that she join the other executives. "I think she's coming around," Kesslin says. "Next time she prints up business cards, she'll be 'Chief Marketing Officer.' "
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- Challenger Gray Christmas, (312) 332-5790
- Egon Zehnder International Inc., email@example.com
- The Herman Group, (800) 277-3566, www.herman.net
- Let's Talk Business Network Inc., (212) 742-1553, www.ltbn.com