Who’s Who in the C Suite: High-Level Executive Titles & What They Actually Mean


Enough. Who are all these people, and what do they actually do with their time?

Well, they’re C-level executives. They’re all “chief” of something, be it their company’s product development processes, human resources department, or the whole ball of wax.

As you can see from this company’s Bloomberg snapshot — one of thousands of private company profiles with publicly available employee information — these “C-people” are featured prominently above the fold. Collectively, they’re the face of their company. The bucks stop with them.

For those wondering what these people actually do all day, that’s probably not a satisfying answer. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common C-level job titles and their general functions. Bear in mind that every company is different, and that there’s no “typical” C-level role. If you plan to apply for a C-level gig anytime soon, you’ll want to pay close attention to the job description. (Though, let’s face it, your headhunter will probably do that.)

First up: chief human resources officer.

Chief Human Resources Officer

The chief human resources officer, also known by its singular variant, is “responsible for developing and executing human resource strategy in support of the overall business plan and strategic direction of the organization, specifically in the areas of succession planning, talent management, change management, organizational and performance management, training and development, and compensation,” according to a sample job description provided by the Society for Human Resources Management.

The CHRO oversees the entire human resources department, including — as befits their expertise — personnel themselves. It’s all very meta.

Chief Marketing Officer

The chief marketing officer is the top process owner for all marketing-related functions. The CMO job doesn’t exist in every organization; smaller B2B firms often farm out these functions to full-service marketing agency or house the role at the senior associate or director level. At larger companies, especially those playing in the B2C space, CMOs are well-respected creatives with enormous influence over organizational objectives and personality.

Chief Information Officer

The chief information officer is responsible for all organizational processes encompassing or arising from data and information technology. In many organizations, they’re also responsible for digital security, though — as we’ll see — that function is increasingly housed in a separate role due to rapidly escalating needs.

Chief Data Officer

Companies without chief information officers often have chief data officers. This role is a bit more narrowly prescribed, dealing specifically with data flows and hygiene. Once relegated to organizations charged with processing incredible amounts of data, such as insurers and bureaucracies, the chief data officer role has flourished in the big data era.

Chief Innovation Officer

The chief innovation officer (CIO) role is a fixture at companies that (with apologies to Jonathan Taplin) ascribe to the “move fast and break things” mentality. That’s not necessarily a dig: very often, these organizations have enough in-development fires burning to require an executive-level process owner to keep everything straight. Indeed, at rapidly growing companies built to disrupt, the CIO’s influence is often second only to the CEO’s.  

Chief Product Officer

The chief product officer (CPO) is responsible for all product development functions. They oversee the entire product architecture, from R&D to fulfillment, and it’s on them if anything goes wrong along the chain. CPOs generally have strong backgrounds in design or engineering. Supply chain management competency is increasingly in demand too.

Chief Security Officer

Glorified bouncer? Not quite. CSOs work in cyberspace, identifying and repelling (through their teams) persistent and novel threats. At large organizations, these threats are too numerous to name. CSOs must therefore be incredibly well organized and — to the extent possible — one step ahead of the bad guys. Most come from law enforcement or white hat developer backgrounds.

Chief Technology Officer

Chief technology officers oversee organizations’ entire technology footprints. In enterprise settings, chief data officers and chief security officers often report to CTOs, though those subordinate roles are sometimes housed at the SVP level or subsumed entirely into teams reporting directly to the CTO.

Chief Compliance Officer

Chief compliance officers are essential to the smooth (and aboveboard) functioning of heavily regulated organizations, particularly in the financial, insurance, and government services industries. They’re responsible for understanding and creating adaptive protocols for the reams of regulations to which their employers are expected to adhere. Many have law degrees, and public-sector experience is definitely prized (though not necessarily required).

Chief Financial Officer

This is the money person — the executive responsible for overseeing the company’s entire financial picture. They get the credit when things go well and take the blame (often paying with their jobs) when things go south. Most have MBAs or advanced accounting degrees; virtually all have years of relevant experience.

Chief Operating Officer

In most organizations, the COO is second only to the chief executive officer: part chief of staff, part gatekeeper, part pragmatic process owner who ensures all trains run on time.

Chief Executive Officer

This is it: the big Kahuna. The buck stops with the CEO, and they have the salaries to prove it. Don’t worry if you’re not quite there yet — non-founding CEOs generally have decades of leadership experience under their belts.

More Cs Where These Came From

Believe it or not, this isn’t an exhaustive list of C suite occupants. Plenty of companies have other C-level titles on their depth charts.

Like who?

Well, there’s the stalwart chief applications officer (sometimes “architect”), who oversees software and app development; the chief development officer, who’s responsible for bringing in new business or, in tech settings, may overlap with the chief applications officer; the chief risk officer, whose job title is fairly self explanatory.

The list goes on, and more titles seem to pop out of the ether every day, courtesy of a rollicking, ever-changing economy wracked by creative and technological disruption.

On the bright side, more C-level titles means more advancement opportunity for ambitious careerists who fit well into the right niches. Here’s to climbing that ladder, however it looks when you reach the top.

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