Vint Cerf is called many things: a computer scientist, one of the fathers of the Internet, maybe even occasionally a smarty pants. So he wasn’t all that surprised when Google leaders Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt came up with a new, never-been-used title for him: VP and Chief Internet Evangelist of Google.
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“They first asked me what title I wanted, and I said ‘Arch Duke,’” Cerf told me, laughing. “They said, ‘Why don’t you be our Chief Internet Evangelist?’ Anytime you get a chief something it is a measure of respect.”
Cerf says the designation is fairly accurate, as he travels the world speaking with others about Internet connection, investment, policies and developments. He often hears: “That’s the most interesting title I’ve ever heard!” It has, however, backfired. On a trip to Russia, Cerf was asked four times in five days if he believed in God. He soon realized that they understood the term “evangelist” as a religious preacher. “I’m Geek Orthodox,” Cerf replied.
In the past few years, the c-suite has exploded its members, knighting nearly every department head with new, inventive chief titles likely dreamed up by the marketing team.
Kodak and Dell appointed Chief Listeners. Facebook recently added two Chief Privacy Officers. Coca-Cola is really gung-ho on the trend, employing a Chief Administrative Officer, Chief Sustainability Officer, Chief Scientific and Regulatory Officer, and Chief Quality and Product Integrity Officer, among others. Microsoft has a Chief People Officer; IBM a Chief Information Officer; Xerox a Chief Strategy Officer; and New York City has its very own Chief Digital Officer.
“It is all corporate kindergarten playtime title-making,” says Mark Stevens, a marketing and management expert and author of "Your Marketing Sucks." “It’s a puppet show. These people have absolutely no power.”
The only C’s with “real” power, Stevens says, are the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer and, occasionally, Chief Operating Officer. “Most of these vanity titles don’t even report to the CEO,” he says.
So what prompted the trend? According to Stevens, too much idle time and interest in making the company sound “cool.”
Peter Cappelli, management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says the new titles are meant to signal — internally, to customers or to governments — that a particular function or task is important and that the people at the top are listening. They may also be a form of ego appeasing and identifying who the important senior people are. “The main question,” he says, “is whether there’s any real substance behind them.”
Big companies are more likely to take these titles seriously with resources and infrastructure, says Cappelli, but small businesses may have more leniency and ability to be creative.
“We adopted Chief Knowledge Officer because we feel it’s a better representation of what’s really needed to be an effective advertising agency today,” says Ann Morton, chief operating officer of Maine-based advertising firm The VIA Agency. “[It’s] about bringing wisdom to our clients, not just information.” The agency’s “CKO” oversees strategy, planning, analytics and research capabilities. Morton concedes, however, that as more unusual titles crop up, leaders should be careful that the title reflects the job and the person’s experience — oh, and to avoid using the word “ninja.” (The Chief Ninja of social location-based game Scvngr must have missed the memo.)
WebiMax, a New Jersey-based firm specializing in search engine optimization, has a Chief Experience Officer, Chief Technology Officer and Chief Observance Officer to “keep an eye on the office environment.” Software company Marketo has a Chief Revenue Officer to manage and predict revenue performance, and talent management company Peoplefluent last week named a Chief Customer Officer to improve customer relationships.
Although Stevens generally feels leaders are now drunk with “title intoxication,” he says the one new title that should be added is Chief Customer Officer. “No one serves as the customers’ advocate in 99 percent of companies.” The role would be most effective, he insists, if it had a straight line to the CEO and dotted line to the board.
Yet most of the new touchy-feely c-suite titles — triumphant chiefs of happiness, people, diversity, culture, talent, observance and employee engagement — fall under the umbrella of human resources.
Tracy McCarthy, an HR executive at talent management software company SilkRoad, says HR becomes more central and strategic when companies view their employees as a competitive advantage. She notes that HR titles have evolved faster than the more traditional c-suite titles, and asks, “Is it because HR is still viewed as the ‘soft skills’ role with less impact while the CEO, CFO and COO continue to be the meat and potatoes of the corporate c-suite? Or is it that the rest of the c-suite hasn’t kept pace with the evolution of business?”
Cappelli, however, says it may simply suggest that the top HR people “are losing their footing.”
© 2012 Forbes.com