Even though I believe in creative, authentic titles like “VP of People,” I hate title inflation. Suddenly, it’s everywhere. I’ve seen more business cards or email sigs lately with adjectives like “executive” or “senior” or “senior executive” or “special” or “chief” in front of more traditional titles (e.g. “vice president”). The “chief” one is especially bizarre since it’s not always obvious whether the CSO is a “Chief Sales Officer” or a “Chief Security Officer”; in and of itself, this is a problem. Forbes even ran a funny/sad piece on some of the more ridiculous new “chiefs” in Corporate America.

When I think about roles, regardless of where the person sits in the organization, I like to think of them as “head of something.” That lets me focus on the “something” that the person is responsible for. This scales up and down the organization since the receptionist in a company is the “head of meeting people when they walk in the door and making sure they are comfortable and find their way to the meeting they are there for.” More importantly, it forces senior execs, such as a COO, CSO, CPO, CRO, CIO, CTO, CDO, CAO, or CFO to define clearly what they are the “head” of.

As I mentioned earlier, I heard the phrase “be the CEO of your jobfrom Mark Pincus and have used it many times over the years. Whenever I’m talking to someone about their role in a company, I’m always trying to figure out what they are going to be the CEO (or head) of. Then when I have the inevitable board member/executive discussion about roles and responsibilities when there are issues, I always carry this metaphor around in my head (e.g. ‘Are you, the executive, being an effective CEO of your job?’). And, when I meet someone new and I see that their title is “Senior Technology Strategist – Digital Products Division,” I try to figure out what they are “the head of,” even if it is one specific thing.


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Even though I believe in creative, authentic titles like “VP of People,” I hate title inflation. Suddenly, it’s everywhere. I’ve seen more business cards or email sigs lately with adjectives like “executive” or “senior” or “senior executive” or “special” or “chief” in front of more traditional titles (e.g. “vice president”). The “chief” one is especially bizarre since it’s not always obvious whether the CSO is a “Chief Sales Officer” or a “Chief Security Officer”; in and of itself, this is a problem. Forbes even ran a funny/sad piece on some of the more ridiculous new “chiefs” in Corporate America.

When I think about roles, regardless of where the person sits in the organization, I like to think of them as “head of something.” That lets me focus on the “something” that the person is responsible for. This scales up and down the organization since the receptionist in a company is the “head of meeting people when they walk in the door and making sure they are comfortable and find their way to the meeting they are there for.” More importantly, it forces senior execs, such as a COO, CSO, CPO, CRO, CIO, CTO, CDO, CAO, or CFO to define clearly what they are the “head” of.

As I mentioned earlier, I heard the phrase “be the CEO of your jobfrom Mark Pincus and have used it many times over the years. Whenever I’m talking to someone about their role in a company, I’m always trying to figure out what they are going to be the CEO (or head) of. Then when I have the inevitable board member/executive discussion about roles and responsibilities when there are issues, I always carry this metaphor around in my head (e.g. ‘Are you, the executive, being an effective CEO of your job?’). And, when I meet someone new and I see that their title is “Senior Technology Strategist – Digital Products Division,” I try to figure out what they are “the head of,” even if it is one specific thing.

If you are CEO of a company, try the following exercise. Take everyone that directly reports to you and change their title to “head of X.” Scribble this on a white board and see if you have all the X’s you need for your whole company covered. Then examine whether there is overlap that is unnecessary, and see if there are big holes. To follow, are the right people the right heads of things?

Then, have each of your direct reports do this for their direct reports. Rather than worry about titles, put “head of X” for each person. Keep doing this down the hierarchy. Do you have what you need covered? Is there duplication and overlap? Are the right people heads of the right things?

While it may not be possible to kill title inflation for a variety of reasons, both internal to a company (mostly ego- and culture-driven) or external to a company (mostly ego- and power-driven), if you are a CEO, don’t let it confuse you when you think about who is doing what in your company. You are stepping back to figure out how to best execute your goals, and considering how to make your organization most effective.

Comment by Dave Taylor
Thank you for writing this, Brad. I was recently talking with an early-stage startup and had to repress my snicker when they introduced themselves as CEO, CTO and COO. If it's just three of you, you're probably not "chief" or "officer." My druthers: identify your functional area ("tech guy") and don't worry about the corporate management structure until you have enough employees to justify the effort.
May 2011
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