Life at C-level: too many chiefs?

The Monitor’s language columnist looks at the proliferation of 'C-level' job titles.

Paging through a national magazine the other day, I was surprised to see a smiling full-color picture of someone I know – sort of. I get newsletters published in his name. So maybe he's not really that close a friend.

In any case, his image appeared in an ad for teleconferencing software. And he was identified as "CMO" of his own company. "Chief meeting officer," perhaps? Not quite: It was "chief marketing officer."

My first response was an editor's quibble: A title worth having is worth spelling out. My second response was to consider just how many different words fit nowadays between "chief" and "officer" on people's business cards.

There's even an umbrella abbreviation for all these terms: CxO, where the "x" is a generic placeholder. Wordspy.com traces "CxO" back to 1997, citing a publisher launching a new website meant to help executives make sense of what was then a new phenomenon, the World Wide Web: "Our goal ... is to become the destination website for senior managers. We know that executives at the 'CxO' level – CEOs, COOs, and CFOs – are venturing out onto the Web."

The idea of corporate executives only just "venturing out onto the Web" sounds a bit quaint. So does the idea that the "C-suite" consists only of chief executives, chief operating officers, and chief financial officers.

In his Word Spy piece, Paul McFedries lists dozens of "CxO" titles, otherwise known as "C-level" positions. Many sound familiar. Others make one think that whoever holds the job in question will have some explaining to do at Thanksgiving dinner.

With so many corporate reporting requirements built into federal regulations, companies have "chief compliance officers." To signal that they really do "get" that their people are their most important asset, some companies have "chief talent officers." And with companies showing that they truly have "got religion" on the need for innovation and creativity, we see "chief imagination officers" – even "chief evangelistic officers."

"Chief chocolate officer" also made the Word Spy list. But it turns out to be a marketing trick from Mars (Mars the candy company, not Mars the planet). "Ms. Brown," a personification of brown M&Ms, starred in a 2012 Super Bowl commercial.

The online publication Knowledge@Wharton, from the University of Pennsylvania's business school, ran an article a few years ago titled "Chief Receptionist Officer? Title Inflation Hits the C-Suite." It compared corporate title inflation to grade inflation in classrooms. But it went on to quote Betsey Stevenson, a Wharton professor of business and public policy, explaining why today's companies, with their relatively "flat" hierarchies, resort to creative titling: to reward employees they want to keep. "People want to be distinguished in some way from everyone else," she said, "but in a flat organization there is less hierarchy and therefore less opportunity to be distinguished."

All these chiefs, not so many Indians!

Titling can help communicate an organization's values. But there's a counterargument that assigning any particular activity to a "chief (whatever) officer" removes it from the portfolio of everyone else. Does calling one person, say, "chief ethics officer," signal a serious corporate commitment to ethics – or just let everyone else off the hook?

As for this CxO formula: It's what's in the middle of the sandwich that matters, and sometimes it's baloney.

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