When will it end? The rise of ‘chief whatever officer’ roles and why they are nonsense

CWOs are advocated by every pundit, analyst, consultant, recruiter and media hack out there, along with an army of wannabes who feel eminently qualified to fill one of these roles.

It is an absurd notion that we need to define and hire someone as a ‘chief’ each time a challenge or opportunity arises that requires leadership attention and accountability. Isn’t this what we pay the big bucks to the CEO and his or her team to do?

Why do we need a proxy leader who is at best only partially responsible for a particular function associated with their role, when we have a CEO and board who are fully accountable for all strategic outcomes? More importantly, one might ask, how did we get here?

>See also: Why you still don’t need a chief data officer

Over the course of management history we have had an organisational structure that mimics how humans behave, i.e. hierarchically. During this time there have always been senior leaders at the very top of the organisation with a hierarchy of subordinates cascading down through the logical number of levels required, until you reach the front-line worker.

This construct was based on the so-called ‘knowledge tree’, as well as being driven by the practicalities of ‘span of control’. It has been a workable construct in spite of the dynamics faced by most organisations in their daily operations and over a long history.

Over time, these senior leaders were denoted as ‘chief officers’ in respect to their area of accountability, such as executive (CEO), operations (COO), finance (CFO) and so on.

Each senior leader had a well-defined remit of functions and activities that they were responsible for and all reported into the CEO, who in theory then reports to the board in terms of accountability.

This structure has been the status quo in all organisational sectors for many decades and I suspect it will be for many more to come in spite of the zeal for so-called disruption.

What has become an affront to this harmonious organisational structure is the zeal and ferocity with which non-management thinkers have begun promoting the hiring of CWOs at every turn.

We now live in a world where they believe that organisations need handfuls of these non-executive proxy leaders to own core competencies such as data, digital, analytics, customer, compliance and security – all without any final accountability.

They also advocate that one CWO should report to another in some bizarre construct. Enough is enough. We need to end this tyranny and get back to the basics of top-down leadership.

If we truly want the evolving competencies of data, analytics and digital to be fully transformational and to use them to create sustainable competitive advantage for our organisations, we need to bake them into our core strategies.

This approach can only be successful when driven by the CEO and board, from the very top into all levels of the fabric of the organisation. There can be no proxy substitutes for true leadership in any organisation. It is the height of anarchy.

>See also: The CEOs of Thomson Reuters and Target show how to be true data leaders

In all organisations, strategy, culture and core competencies are formulated and nurtured by the senior leadership team in a coherent fashion and embraced by everyone in their daily endeavors.

Creating arbitrary points of focus and soft power structures causes confusion, rancor and competition within the formalised structure of the organisation and its natural hierarchies. Success is difficult enough to achieve without creating a minefield of organisational disconnects along the journey.

In the end, CEOs and boards should not be swayed to adopt fashion statements, false gods or superheroes. The CWO syndrome is an amalgam of all three with no long-term sustainable benefits.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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