Your field guide to the odd creatures in today's C-suite

The executive suite is taking a greater interest than ever in tech decision-making. Here's what you need to know about these characters.
Written by Toni Bowers, Contributor and  Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Image: iStockphoto/shironosov

Be honest. The first time you heard someone talk about the C-suite or mention the term "CXO," you rolled your eyes.

We don't blame you.

The fact that people waste their time coming up with jargon to talk about these roles indicates how fashionable it has become to have a title that makes you the chief officer of something. In fact, with so many of them running around with these titles now it's getting tough to keep them all straight, right?

Well, that's where we come in. We've put together a field guide to help you recognize these creatures when you see them in the wild. And if you're involved in tech, then you better take note because more and more of these wild beasts are involved in making technology buying decisions.

CEO (Chief Executive Officer)

The CEO is the Top Dog, the Head Poobah, the Big Cheese. As such, he is free to speak entirely in abstract terms that give no clue as to how to implement them. He wants to build the company's core competencies while exercising best practices with synergy to become a world-class company that moves the needle. He also likes to set the cultural tone, so you can expect to see him wearing bow ties or kilts. And his jokes are always funny.

CFO (Chief Financial Officer)

Driven by numbers, the CFO is the only executive in the bunch who actually sleeps in spreadsheet-themed pajamas. In a survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit of 669 senior finance professionals in Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa, 75 percent of respondents do not record having a fellow CFO they admire. Not that they're unlikeable people, they're just focused on profits ('focused' really isn't a strong enough word — then again, there really isn't a strong enough word in the English language). You can identify a CFO if you pass her in the hall and she looks right at you but doesn't see you. That's because she's completely enamored with the scatter plots that are dancing in front of her eyes.

COO (Chief Operating Officer)

The Chief Operating Officer might just have the most difficult job out of all the C-suite personnel. Why? Because his job is to interpret the organization's CEO-driven strategy/mission statement and cascade it to the lower-ranking staff, thereby aligning personnel with company goals. Kind of like a corporate alchemist. He is known to thrive on complexity and change, which means he buys Tums by the vat at Cosco and answers emails at all hours of day and night. You often forget his name, but describe him as looking like the dad on one of those 80s sitcoms.

CIO (Chief Information Officer)

The CIO has ultimate responsibility for all things technology-related within the company. According to statistics, CIOs have less than a one-in-five chance of having a seat at the top management table in their own company. It's not that these highly-motivated, hard-working people are not deserving of the honor. It's simply that no-one else at the table has the slightest idea of what they're talking about.

CTO (Chief Technology Officer)

There are two types of CTOs. One is essentially the west-coast verison of the CIO. You see, the west coast hates the old-school CIO who wears three-piece suits and plays golf with IBM sales reps. Oh, this west coast CTO does the same work of running a company's IT department, but wouldn't be caught dead in a tie, hates legacy technologies, and wants to run everything in the cloud. The other type of CTO is the external-facing technology executive who is not involved in running the old fashioned IT department, but develops the technologies that power the company's products. In fact, many large companies have a CIO and a CTO, where the CIO is an operations wonk and the CTO is a product innovator. Now, THAT is a CTO.

CMO (Chief Marketing Officer)

The CMO is a visionary who must be able to drive business, strategize, advocate the brand, and woo customers with the zeal of a honey badger. A large part of his or her job is entertaining clients in the hopes of landing a deal. As such, requirements for the job include a jovial attitude, a thick skin, a large expense report, and the fast track on a second liver.

CRO (Chief Revenue Officer)

This is the new name for the sales chief. Companies that have a CRO will tell you that a CRO is so much more than that. But look up any CRO on Linkedin and you'll see previous jobs such as: vice president of sales, head of sales, and west coast sales director. The CRO title is all about perception. As one sales chief once said, "When I call someone up and say I'm the head of sales then it sounds like I'm saying, 'Hi, I'm the one who's coming to get your money.'" On the other hand, CRO sounds like an inner-circle executive who can talk big-picture strategy. Of course, the CRO is still coming to get your money.

CDO (Chief Digital Officer)

Congratulations, CDO! You win this year's award for the squishiest title in the C-suite. The Chief Digital Officer is what you'd get if you crossed a CTO with a CMO. The role is called CDO because that's slightly less ridiculous than Chief Internet Officer or Chief Social Officer, but both of those would be more properly descriptive. The CDO is all about internet promotion, social media, mobile, and keeping the company at the forefront of what's happening on the web. That's important stuff, and in a few years I'm sure we'll stop snickering every time we hear someone use this title —either that, or the digital responsibilities will get absorbed into other C-level jobs and we'll look back and laugh even harder at this chimera called the CDO.

Editorial standards