I have recently been doing quite a bit of work in the European Community and more particularly in the UK. One of the things that I’ve found interesting is that many of our European brethren are not familiar with the term “C-suite executive“. As the yank from the colonies, I’ve found myself attempting to rationally explain the phenomenon of “Title Proliferation” (which is comprised of “Title Escalation” and “Title Inflation”) that we’ve experienced in the US over the last several years.  After a few explanations and a little reflection, I thought this topic worthy of today’s blog post (or blog venting session as the case may be).

It wasn’t that long ago that we only had a handful of C-suite positions: Chairman of the Board, Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Financial Officer…Oh, what a wonderful era when Corporate America was a simple place where a president was a president and not a division manager posing as a president.

All kidding aside, in this author’s humble opinion there are legitimate needs as well as corresponding uses and benefits for certain titles when applied appropriately for true corporate benefit. That being said, I’m never thrilled to be called on by someone who introduces themself as something more than the reality of who they really are…Clever marketing is one thing, but gross embellishment is quite another.

Let’s see if we can’t make sense out of this debacle by first defining the difference between title escalation and title inflation. Title escalation is the creation of a new position which in turn truly requires the creation of a new corresponding title. Title inflation on the other hand is bestowing a grandiose title upon someone who is either underqualified or otherwise not legitimately deserving of the title. I believe the phenomenon of title inflation in the US to have been started in the banking industry…I woke up one day and suddenly found that anyone who was not a teller was a Vice President of something or other Let’s examine a representative list of just some of the current C-suite titles (excluding the ones mentioned above):

  • Chief Strategy Officer
  • Chief Scientific Officer
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Chief Technology Officer
  • Chief Investment Officer
  • Chief Innovation Officer
  • Chief Talent Officer
  • Chief Marketing Officer
  • Chief Knowledge Officer
  • Chief Compliance Officer

I’m sure that by the time this article gets posted there may be a few other titles that need to be added to the list. All puns aside, there have been times when I found myself completely in awe of the talent, experience, and intelligence possessed by individuals that have held the aforementioned titles. In other circumstances, I have been totally embarrassed for corporations that have allowed their entities to be represented by such extreme examples of form over substance.

So where did all these titles come from? If I’m candid, I can’t say for sure, so what follows is my best attempt at reconstructing American title history and therefore should not be taken as fact. As I noted earlier, I believe that banks induced the inflationary period that has so tightly gripped Corporate America with regard to titles only to have insurance companies and other financial services firms follow suit. In America, as goes Wall Street, so goeth the rest of Corporate America. Yes the herd mentality is still alive and well

Title Escalation on the other hand (at least were used appropriately) simply evolved over time to keep pace with corporate growth and maturation. By way of example, when corporate finance became so fractionalized by complexity and specialization, it was necessary to draw a distinction between investment and finance, and thus the duties, roles, and responsibilities were divided between the Chief Financial Officer and the new role of Chief Investment Officer. The same holds true for advancements in all practice areas and disciplines As technology became more advanced, staff and budgets grew as did corporate dependencies a various platforms, environments, and toolsets, and thus the need for more senior leadership positions such as Chief Information Officers and Chief Technology Officers. When marketing evolved beyond buying media in print, TV, and radio mediums to managing multiple brands across multiple mediums on a global basis the Chief Marketing Officer was born and the list goes on

When all is said and done, I believe necessary and appropriate title escalation by design is a valuable and needed evolutionary phenomenon that constantly pushes the envelope of innovation and is good for business. It is the unnecessary, illogical, and harmful aspects of title inflation that I take exception to.