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The C-Suite Conundrum

Dan Wells March 26, 2024
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Article by Patrick Dunne, Experienced Chair and Board Member:

The proliferation of the “C” prefix to job titles has coincided with seismic changes in the way we lead, work and communicate as well as with generational shifts and changes in the power balance between functional leaders.

Looking at organisation charts and job sites it seems that there are now over 20 commonly used “C-Suite” titles ranging from the classic trio of Chief Executive, Chief Financial and Chief Operations Officers, to the up-and-coming CDO (Chief Data Officer) and new age sounding Chief Experience Officer.  Amusingly when I mentioned that I was writing this article a C-Suite friend told me about a comment her CEO had made to her one day “ I’m really worried we seem to have a Chief of everything but Wednesdays!”

Taken literally the “C-Suite”, means the place where the “Chiefs” hang out. Historically this was a luxury “Suite” of offices typically at the top of a tall building. This reinforced status, rewarded achievement, shielded the most senior leadership of the organisation from the rest of the organisation and enabled them to spend more time together working on the big strategic issues or to keep a closer eye on their competition for the top job.

I’ve always found the term “Chief” a strange choice. As a boy I was puzzled by the fact that they were always portrayed as the bad guys who got shot while the supposed good guys, who were ironically called cowboys, literally rode rough shod over the feelings and rights of others.  The term also feels somewhat at odds with modern leadership and the “C” can easily be used in a less flattering way e.g. “Clown Suite”.

The use of the word “Chief” can also be an issue for many indigenous peoples, especially Native Americans. DEI Expert Lee Bitsóí’s article Why “Chief” should be eliminated from Diversity titles summarises this well.

In the C-Suite three-word system of nomenclature for job titles the first word is Chief, the second describes the function and the third is “Officer” again another somewhat outdated term other than in the military. Millennials who are assuming more and more leadership positions from GenXers will also influence how things are described as well as how they are done.

So, despite its enormous popularity and use of the two elements of the term C-Suite both feel a little at odds with our times.  Does it matter if today’s meaning is clear and relevant? This will be an absolutely it does for some who also may doubt whether the meaning is clear.

Yet, for others the proliferation has played its part in creating helpful conditions for “Distributed Leadership” to flourish , where leadership responsibilities are shared rather than vested in one or a very small number of people. Fans of distributed leadership will point to three principles required to make it work:

Autonomy and the empowering freedom and agility it provides

Capacity, specifically the boost to leadership capacity through more empowered leaders and the;

Accountability that comes with clearer responsibility and autonomy.

They are also likely to say that it simply reflects the practical reality of many organisations and the ways of getting things done in a more complex and interconnected world an that it is a model and style of leadership that is more in tune with the younger generations coming through.

For those who don’t hold those views, or where perhaps those principles haven’t been applied or applied poorly, distributed leadership can be confusing, frustrating and expensive. Confusing in trying to decide who to go to for a decision. Frustrating at the time it takes to get decisions made, given the range of inputs and formal or informal veto rights of too many chiefs and expensive because of the aggregate costs of the chiefs and the associated costs.

But what’s happening to the “C” roles themselves? In talking to a range of “C”s, the answer appears to be quite a lot and much of what is changing is common to many of the “C” roles across a diverse range of sectors.

For example, one of the pioneer C-suite roles, the CFO, feels to have shape shifted significantly with a knock-on effect on the skills required to be successful in the role. This is captured very well in two recent CFO Insight reports from SAP Concur titled CFO Insights – Top Priorities for 2024 and Key Skills Finance Leaders need for the Future.

The priorities illustrate the shift in role for CFOs with digital transformation and data now at the core. For interest, the other priorities related to “Balancing short- and long-term priorities”: “Stability versus growth” “Keeping up with the accelerated pace of change and investing in cutting-edge technology” “Embracing, driving, and managing digital transformation”,Providing more value to customers and creating more value for their company.” And, lest we think the CFO is getting distracted from the core of their role “Focussing on the basics”

However, a recent Paper from the ACCA and BDO Chief Value Officer – The important evolution of the CFO put forward the view that “Chief financial officers are increasingly adopting a value centric approach in their work and this represents an evolution towards a chief value officer role away from a traditionally financially focused remit.” I can see a lot of boards having a religious difficulty with that notion and thinking that the financially focussed remit underpins a progressive approach to value rather than is something to move away from. Just above the base of integrity in the Maslow like hierarchy of needs of CFOs that I described in Boards .

With regard to skills and characteristics, many of those required for CFOs will be required for others with “C” titles including one that Thomas Lavin the Chief Controlling Officer at SAP describes engagingly as “Finding the sweet spot of combining artificial and human intelligence to generate meaningful insight”.

Thomas’s quote feels just as relevant for Chief Human Resource Officers, who may need to become even more human and resourceful to balance the growing need for them to be highly digitally savvy and AI literate with the pressures of recruiting and retaining talent and achieving high engagement.  One such human skill as I argued in a previous Article Managing Conflict – The Underacknowledged Superpower is the ability to manage conflict which is rising in importance.

There has also been shift in power between roles reflecting the changing context. Examples of this include the power that Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and Chief Data Officers (CDOs) weald. Well, that is if they are good.  Most organisational transformations are critically dependent for sustained success upon having the right technology and data strategies. Smart CEOS and boards know this. Which helps in taking the right care in appointing people who can blend strategic capability with technical prowess or in many cases people who understand the business and know what great technical people look like and can lead and get the best out of them.

When I sat down to write this article I thought long and hard about the “So What?” I didn’t just want to put out a load of issues, fun though that might be. The “So what?” became to challenge whether we have we got what we need with our current organically developed leadership models and the configurations they have led to and whether they are right for what we see coming ahead. The answer is inevitably organisation specific.