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The Rise of the Chief [Insert Trend Here] Officer: Are New Titles Fads or Fixtures in Business Model Innovation?

Brian Solis
Brian SolisPrincipal Analyst
As Principal Analyst and futurist at Altimeter, I study disruptive technology and its impact on business and society. In my reports, articles and books, I humanise technology and its impact on business and society to help executives gain new perspectives and insights. My research explores digital transformation, customer experience and culture 2.0 and "the future of" industries, trends and behaviour.

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Does your company have a chief experience officer, customer officer, chief digital officer, chief innovation officer, chief human resources officer, or the like? Welcome to a new era of business where specialized CxOs come and go as organizations scramble to survive digital Darwinism.

With every emerging business trend, new expertise and roles are necessary to lead transformation. In recent years, we’ve witnessed the rise of several prominent movements reshaping markets and pressuring companies to adapt and innovate. Some of the most influential trends right now are doing just that. Formal initiatives aimed at corporate innovation, digital transformation, customer experience (CX), employee experience (EX), corporate culture, are already in play. But, the factors that define their success are directly tied to the skillsets and experience of those leading and executing. In many cases, that talent is often lacking or absent in the beginning.

Obviously, not reacting with sufficient efforts in new fronts means imminent market irrelevance. Forming centers of excellence, steering committees, or hiring big consultancies, are all par for the course. But without someone who can lead change, these efforts meander or fail with great costs. One way organizations mobilize around trends or disruption is to recruit or elevate someone with direct knowledge and experience to lead the charge.

This is where things get interesting and even a bit controversial.

Are CxOs good for business?

In my research over the years on business transformation, I’ve interviewed and advised senior executives in or directly reporting to the C-Suite with traditional and ultramodern titles, or trendy or fad titles as critics refer to them. Historically, existing executive organizations would fold new efforts into their realm. But as trends become more nuanced, the rise of CxOs is becoming more mainstream.

With each new shift, new titles (and detractors) come to light. Here are just a handful of examples (Trend + Title):

Customer Experience = Chief Experience or Chief Customer Officer (CeO, CCO)

Digital Economy = Chief Digital Officer (CD)

Digital Transformation = Chief Transformation Officer (CTO) or Transformer in Chief

Employee Experience = Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO)

Corporate Culture = Chief Culture Officer (or CHRO)

Corporate Innovation = Chief Innovation Officer (CiO)

Big Data = Chief Data Officer (CDO)

Cyber Threats = Chief Security Officer (CSO)

Experience Design = Chief Design Officer (CDO, DEO)

This list could go on and on. I didn’t even include some of the more unripe titles such as Chief Heart Officer, Digital Czar, Chief Evangelist, Chief Inspiration Officer, etc.

Pundits tend to point out that trends come and go. As such, creating specialized roles, they argue, deter focus and resources. I’ve seen extreme examples point out such big shifts in the evolution of business that didn’t require such leadership such as, Chief Electricity Officer or Chief Internet Officer. Just recently, my friend Theo Priestly published a compelling argument against hiring a Chief Digital Officer or the need to qualify anything “digital,” i.e. digital economy, digital transformation, etc. The same article can (and has on countless occasions) be written for any title and trend.


Whatever We Call Them, We Need Leaders Who Understand “Why” and “How” the World is Changing and What To Do About It

As an analyst who deeply studies innovation, disruption, experience and engagement I can say with confidence that debating titles is futile. No matter what experts decree, companies are going to experiment. Some will excel. Others will stumble and hopefully learn. But, here’s what’s at the heart of the matter. Market disruption is unwavering, imminent and it does not discriminate. While many roles within the organization today, should in theory, manage transformation, the individuals and/or the scope of those roles are limited by real world human capacity, tenacity, curiosity, creativity, perspective, mindset, among other everyday individual characteristics.

In every study on the aforementioned topics, I consistently find that the top challenges facing organizational change are…mostly human. Let’s for a moment, take the title out of the discussion. If we consider the trends impacting business and focus on strategy, imperatives, perceived urgency (or not), strengths and weaknesses, gaps (perspective, mindset, skills/expertise, engagement/incentivization), etc., companies have a lot to learn and unlearn.

As a digital anthropologist who studies the effects of disruptive and consumerized technologies on society, I often point to evolving and widening disconnects between how incumbent executives see the world progressing and how and why people (think connected customers and employees) are actually developing.


Titles vs. Purpose and the Needs for Real Change

There are always cases where organizations abuse trendy titles to communicate market leadership. Some of these new hires serve as figureheads for shareholders and stakeholders to buy into perceived competitiveness. But what’s happening in the world, how people are changing, and the paths that connect the past and the future are not in of themselves paved because of digital, innovation, experience design, employee engagement or culture. They are merely means toward a goal or outcome. Digital isn’t just a thing, it’s now a way of life and work.

Not all CIOs/CTOs understand the relationship between technology and how people make decisions or want to work.

Not all CMOs understand why customers are prioritizing experiences over products and how mobile devices and their favorite apps are influencing preferences, expectations and values.

Not all CEOs understand the state and evolution of corporate culture and how legacy and progressive mindsets are restricting innovation and dividing the workforce.

Can they learn? Yes, they need to. But there are also many factors that prevent learning from being immediate and sweeping. Legacy perspectives, mindsets and years of experience in “business as usual” biases how problems and opportunities are perceived and thus hinders true innovation and transformation.

To change takes vision, purposefulness, competence and resilience. And that often requires new roles and people, regardless of title, to lead the way.

This year, Capgemini and I studied the growing gap between leadership and employees. The result was an eye-opening report, “The Digital Culture Challenge: Closing the Employee-Leadership Gap.” We found over and over that executives believed they were further along and better prepared for digital transformation. For example:

62% of survey respondents consider culture the number one hurdle to digital transformation.

Only one in five managers believe their organization has a digital culture.

75% of senior executive believe their organizations have a culture of innovation but only 37% of employees agree.

Only 7% of organizations can test, learn and deploy new ideas rapidly. 

Empowered CxOs: Accountability, Business Acumen, Influence

Every day, I see titles come and go. But what I don’t see enough of are shifts in perspective and directives to get to the core of why the likes of innovation, experience, culture, digital, et al., officers can benefit, accelerate and fortify transformation.

Corporate DNA in many companies is rigid, rooted in legacy and functions against aging management models.

But make no mistake, trendy is as trendy does.

Incumbent companies that excel have to shake things up. Just because established roles and the people who occupy them are in place doesn’t mean that they’re capable of expanding their aptitude and executing on new fronts. New perspectives and talent are not necessarily beholden or even familiar with legacy approaches. Companies need modern roles, processes and policies to challenge convention and move in new directions.

For these experimental roles to succeed however, chief executive officers, boards, shareholders and stakeholders alike, regardless of the size of company, must empower and support them. At the same time, those who assume these next-generation positions must embrace responsibility and accountability to pursue opportunities, lead change, engage/modernize teams and drive business outcomes.

It’s not easy. Then again, nothing about reinventing business in the face of disruption or creative destruction is business as usual. But that’s also why these times are so exciting. We get to develop the blueprint for the future right now.

The truth is that many of the trends reshaping markets today are not confined to any one department. While organizations can benefit from modern talent, leadership and investments, new perspectives, proficiencies and mindsets are also needed throughout the organization.

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