by Josh Fruhlinger

9 chiefs you don’t need in the C-suite

Oct 26, 2018
C-SuiteIT Leadership

What's in a title? Sometimes surprisingly little, it turns out.

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Taking it to the top

The dot-com era is widely remembered as a time of excess, experimentation, hubris, and whimsy in the tech industry. Well, tech may have matured a bit, but there are still some “out-of-the-box” job titles out there—and they’ve spread into the wider world of business, and upstairs to the C-suite. From the confusing but vaguely professional (“Chief Advancement Officer”) to the touchy-feely (“Chief Story Teller”) to the downright bizarre (“Chief Wizard”), these titles may make their holders happy, but they aren’t always the best business decision, according to the experts we spoke to. Let’s take a trip to the top of the most irritatingly whimsical org chart.

Chief Sustainability Officer

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Lisa Barrington, founder and principal of Barrington Coaching, has nothing against sustainability, but she sees the role of Chief Sustainability Officer as ancillary—along with executives dedicated to “data, innovation, purchasing, customers, and compliance.”

“What are the core elements of running an organization?” she asks. “The creation and production of products and services; marketing and selling those products and services; the people that do the work of the organization; and managing the organization’s money. Thus, the truly necessary roles at the C-suite level are the CEO, COO, CMO, CFO, and the CHRO. The ideal team should be capped at about seven people.” You could say that adding too many people to the C-suite makes management unsustainable.

Chief Worry Officer

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OK, this isn’t a particularly common job title. But it’s a catch-all term that Ilene Marcus, Founder of Aligned Workplace, uses to describe C-suite titles that are “too niched,” like a Chief Risk Officer or Chief Revenue Officer.

“These positions tend to drive mission and activities on specific silos,” she says. “Their priorities may seem innocent and their ideas/operations show up as small tweaks, but over time they take the organization off the path of mission-driven success.  While you want diverse voices in the C-suite to guard against group think, every position should be rowing in the same direction and working to minimize risks, barriers, and any potential threats to core operations—this should never fall on just one position or title.”

Chief Happiness Officer

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On the flipside, Marcus cites some C-titles that are so broad as to be kind of shapeless—Chief Happiness Officer being a prime example. “This is a ‘mascot’ position that I saw in several start-ups,” she says. “Usually it was a person who was kind of a ‘magnet’ for the organization—embodying the principles and culture and elevated to a position where they could spread that companywide.” Again, nothing wrong with it in theory, but fobbing that immense and important job off onto a single person lets the rest of the C-suite off the hook for what should be a company-wide purpose.

Chief Inclusion Officer

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Chief Inclusion Officers are another one of those “Chief Worry Officers” that Marcus describes, usually focusing on corporate diversity (which should be a company-wide value, not a silo). But Nick Welham, founder of C-Link Consulting, says that many companies spawn proliferating titles because they genuinely want inclusion, even though this isn’t the best way to get it. “Having a diversity of background and skills is essential for improving the ROI of decisions,” he says. “But anyone who cannot contribute in a unique and meaningful way to the business should not be in the C-suite, or have a C-level title.” He suggests abandoning buzzword titles and moving “to a mindset to where more inclusive discussions are the norm. This would require input from non-executive members who have expertise, in a similar way to the German codetermination system of workers providing management input.”

Chief Storyteller

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Steve Clayton became Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller in 2010, a job that entailed evangelizing for the software behemoth when customers needed to have a strong narrative of what, exactly, the company was all about. In such cases, while the role’s inclusion in the C-suite may not necessarily make management sense, it is meant to convey a message about what the company is doing. “When something becomes the focus of an organization’s survival, its importance is elevated,” says Barrington, and the job title needs to match.

She continues: “In many cases—a Chief Ethics Officer, for example—the organization has either taken a hit (think Wells Fargo or Uber) and is making a point to the marketplace, to shareholders, to the public, or maybe even to the board of directors.”

Chief Experience Officer (and then some)

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Of course, just because you have “C” or “chief” in your title doesn’t mean you’re actually in the decision-making C-suite. Kitty Brandtner, Director of Major Accounts at LaSalle Network, rattles off a list of titles she’s encountered: “Director of First Impressions, Chief People Officer, Head of Employee Experience, Head of Culture, Chief Culture Evangelist, Head of People, and Chief Experience Officer.” The actual duties attached to all these titles? Working as a receptionist.

This might be the logical end product of a tight job market, in which, as C-Link Consulting’s Welham notes, “employers need a carrot to attract quality applicants.” But Brandtner says that “a job seeker’s attention span is limited so if anything is confusing about the title or job description, they’ll move on.”

Chief Party Officer

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Of course, sometimes a job title does nothing more than reflect organizational dysfunction. Marketing consultant Gail Luscombe tells the tale of one such executive at a company where she worked, the Chief Party Officer. “She was essentially our operations manager,” says Luscombe, “who was also somehow shoehorned into employee morale building, projects that were called ‘Big Fun initiatives.’ One of her projects was to splatter paint randomly across the office walls so it didn’t feel so ‘sterile.’ The really disorienting part was that she had to offset all the party initiatives with things like mandatory dress code meetings and fire alarm testing. If you saw her coming, you didn’t know if you were going to be showered with confetti for no reason or if you just needed to confirm a missed timecard punch.”

Chief Wizard

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Then there are the stories that cross the line from incompetence into outright fabrication, like the one from a marketer we’ll call “Anne.” “I worked very briefly for what turned out to be a complete fraud. The ‘Chief Wizard’ was the founder and primary fraudster. The ‘Director of Smiles and Dreams’ was the daughter of the rube he suckered into giving him $17M to fart around the globe to different conferences talking about his vaporware product.”

The company eventually collapsed—”there was a clash with investors, which I imagine was along the lines of ‘Holy crap this product doesn’t really exist, give us our money back,'” says Anne. “I think the whimsical titles were just because that’s a Silicon Valley thing. It’s very easy to perform Tech Founder if you’re motivated to, and people rarely dig below the surface.”

Chief Flavor Officer

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Finally, there are those C-suite titles that denote no role in the actual C-suite—indeed, no concrete organizational role to speak of. They are the job title equivalents of honorary university degrees.

Take, for instance, the case of the Bai beverage company, which superstar Justin Timberlake invested in and was in return granted the title of “Chief Flavor Officer.” Is Timberlake spending a great deal of his day-to-day time overseeing the flavors Bai is putting into their beverages? “Justin is one of the most creative people I’ve been around,” Company CEO Ben Weiss is quoted as saying in the afore-linked Fortune article. “He truly cares about the beverage and has an opinion worth listening to whether it relates to flavor innovation or marketing.” We’re going to take that to mean no, no he does not.