What and Who is an Executive? - Executive Career Brand™ (2023)

What and Who is an Executive? - Executive Career Brand™ (1)

“What and who is an executive?” may seem like an odd topic for me to write about.

I mean, I know what an executive is. I’ve been working with executive job seekers for more than 25 years.

But I find that there’s confusion on the part of some of them about whether or not they actually ARE “executives”.

Here’s something that happens to me all the time:

People like Vice Presidents, General Managers or those at and above the Director level (clearly executives by most any definition) ask me:

“Will you consider working with me . . . even though I’m not at the executive level yet?”

I’m baffled every time.

Unless the definition of executive has shifted over the years, for all my years as a job search and careers professional, I’ve considered someone to be an executive when they manage others and have decision-making authority.

This doesn’t necessarily mean being “a suit”.Even someCEOs (unquestionably executives) don’t wear suits.

Dictionary.com lists its first definition of the noun “executive” as:

“A person or group of persons having administrative or supervisory authority in an organization.”

How One Esteemed Expert Answers the Question “Who is an Executive?”

The late Peter F. Drucker‘s seminal book on management, The Effective Executive (1967), was quoted in the Fast Company article, Who Is an Executive?

“I have called “executives” those knowledge works, managers, or individual professionals who are expected by virtue of their position or their knowledge to make decisions in the normal course of their work that have impact on the performance and results of the whole.

What few yet realize, however is how many people there are even in the most humdrum organization of today, whether business or government agency, research lab or hospital, who have to make decisions. For the authority of knowledge is surely as legitimate as the authority of position. These decisions, moreover, are of the same kind as the decision of top management.

The most subordinate, we now know, may do the same kind of work as the president of the company or the administrator of the government agency, that is, plan, organize, integrate, motivate, and measure. His compass may be quite limited, but within his sphere, he is an executive.”

What About the C-suite or C-level Executive Level?

C-suite or c-level executives are the top-rung corporate “chiefs”. C-suite job titles include:

  • Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
  • Chief Experience Officer (CXO)
  • Chief Operating or Operations Officer (COO)
  • Chief Information Officer (CIO)
  • Chief Investment Officer (CIO)
  • Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
  • Chief Brand or Banking Officer (CBO)
  • Chief Compliance Officer (CCO)
  • Chief Technology or Technical Officer (CTO)
  • Chief Finance or Financial Officer (CFO)
  • Chief Learning or Legal Officer (CLO)

In the Fast Company article, Your C-Suite Is Way Too Crowded, Russell Fleischer, general partner with Battery Ventures, says that “c-level fever” is sweeping its way through the corporate world.

He notes some of the newer c-level titles:

  • Chief Revenue Officer (CRO)
  • Chief Customer Officer (CCO)
  • Chief Product Officer (CPO)
  • Chief Communications Officer (CCO)
  • Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)
  • Chief Listening Officer (CLO)
  • Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)

. . . And even more C-level executive job titles

Job Search and Career Expert Alison Doyle adds to this list in an article on The Balance:

  • Chief Accounting Officer (CAO)
  • Chief Applications Architect (CAA)
  • Chief Administrative Officer (CAO)
  • Chief Contracting Officer (CCO)
  • Chief Data Officer (CDO)
  • Chief Development Officer (CDO)
  • Chief Information Technology Officer (CITO)
  • Chief Risk Officer (CRO)
  • Chief Underwriting Officer (CUO)
  • Chief Procurement Officer (CPO)

You see that some of the above use the same acronyms as others at the c-level, but with a different significance.

Why Are There So Many C-suite Executive Job Titles?

The reasoning for this ever-growing c-suite alphabet soup, according to Fleischer:

“Some companies like to craft new positions with fancy titles just in order to appear like they’re paying attention to a particular business function. Others use C-level titles to combat the shortage of high-level talent in sought-after fields. CEOs and recruiters figure that if they give someone a “Chief Something” title, instead of a more-traditional VP or SVP role, an on-the-fence job candidate might be more likely to sign on the dotted line.”

LinkedIn’s Research on Emerging C-suite Roles

LinkedIn’s Workforce Insights team analyzed nearly 120,000 C-suite positions in the U.S. (as listed on LinkedIn profiles) from September 2020 to August 2021. They found the following C-suite roles growing most rapidly:

What and Who is an Executive? - Executive Career Brand™ (2)

LinkedIn’s Senior Editor at large, George Anders, noted:

“The traditional Big Three roles — chief executive officer, chief operating officer and chief finance officer — remain the areas seeing the most hiring. But the C-suite keeps getting wider, with lots of action in 51 (yes, 51!) other C-suite roles we analyzed.”

Why such a rise in so-called “people function” C-suite roles (that is, non-financial and non-marketing areas)?

Chief.com says:

“The C-Suite title that saw the most growth by far from 2020 to 2021 according to LinkedIn was the role of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and its variants, seeing 111% year-over-year growth. The number is up from an already fast-growing 84% from 2020 in reaction to George Floyd’s murder. This shows that companies are continuing to prioritize the need for enacting real and lasting reform across industries, not just in relation to racial bias but also for corporate governance and environmental impact.

Despite not driving revenue, these non-financial roles nonetheless impact key areas of the business, particularly when it comes to talent attraction and retention. In a recent Deloitte survey of C-Suite leaders, 79% said their companies had a clear purpose-driven strategy that permeates through everything that they do. Roles like Chief Sustainability or Chief Purpose Officer therefore are emerging titles that could help this integration — especially as the generational makeup of corporations is changing.”

Companies expand their c-suites to address specific needs.

For example, notes SeniorRecruiter.com:

“Unique from the traditional Chief Marketing Officer, a Chief Brand Officer has a keen understanding of how to elevate or change a brand. Similarly, a Chief Storytelling Officer is brought on to help a company communicate its journey more effectively.

Another area experiencing leadership growth is the people function. Chief Happiness Officers, Chief People Officers and Chief Human Resources Officers are all becoming more common. A separate title, Chief Wellness Officer, is sometimes reserved for larger companies that are rolling out entire programs focused on employee wellbeing. Having someone who’s focused on wellness will be critical for companies moving forward. At smaller companies, this role might fall under benefits or human resources.”

More C-suite Roles That May Start To Appear

The relatively new c-suite roles may soon be joined by others, noted Chief.com:

  • Chief Metaverse Officer — connecting the real world with the virtual one
  • Chief Wellness Officer — addressing employees’ mental, physical, emotional, and financial needs
  • Chief Remote Officer — managing the complexities of a distributed workforce, by leading compensation, culture, and cybersecurity.
  • Chief Cohesion Officer — bringing the scattered parts of hybrid working together

What Does All of This Say About Companies Moving Forward?

Anders notes:

“These rankings aren’t just a tip sheet for ambitious people looking to rocket into top leadership. They also provide clues about companies’ ever-changing priorities. No matter what the domain, when companies want to fix problems fast or make the most of new opportunities — it’s common to signal those ambitions by adding a C-suite leader.”

Who Is an Executive? What Do You Think?

At what level does someone become an executive?

When does someone who has been contributing forseveral years and adding value to a company or organization get to call herself an executive?

My Tools for Executives in Job Search

My Proprietary Worksheets for Personal Branding and Executive Job Search

CareerBrandVideos™ – Customized Videos for Job Search and Career

The Job Search Bible: 23 Ways You Sabotage Your Executive Job Search (ebook)

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