Forgive me if during these early weeks of 2011 I muse some unusual thoughts. There will be plenty of time during the year to bore on about sovereign debt crises, global growth and currency wars. Today I want to go on a complete tangent.
This week I interviewed the Chief Commercial Officer of Virgin Atlantic Airways. I noticed that on the website she was still described as the Chief Financial Officer - clearly a change had taken place. But what was the significance of this shift in title?
In my own company in recent weeks I also noticed a couple of colleagues had new titles. A Managing Director here. A new General Manager there. Since these execs were already Senior Vice Presidents it set me thinking - are we defined by the tagline under out names on business cards? Indeed what's in a corporate name?
At the top of the tree
As a junior financial reporter doing my first stint on Wall Street, I was very impressed by a business card which had Vice President on it. The only Vice President I knew of was the Vice President of the United States. Clearly this person was IMPORTANT. Until they pointed out - nah, on wall Street everyone gets that title. It's the first rung on the big corporate ladder. You only become important when you get Managing Director after your name!
At the top of this tree sits the Chairman and Chief Executive. In the US these are more often than not one and the same person. In the rest of the world securing so much power in one individual is thought of as very bad form. The roles are split. Whatever. We all understand that the person with the title Chief Executive Officer really is the Big Banana.
With the arrival of the Chief Executive came a revolution in other titles too. Suddenly, everywhere, it is Hail to the Chief. The Chief Executive. The Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Operating officer, the Chief Commercial Officer. We even have a new name for where they live...The C Suite.
The power that lies beneath
Does all this matter? You bet it does.
Companies use titles to telegraph to employees and the rest of the world the power that lies beneath the waves. Whether you are called Managing Director or Executive Director, your title is reflecting the authority you have been given within the company. Anyone that suggests otherwise is either deluding themselves or has just lost out in latest round of Title Inflation.
The problem of course is that we now have such a plethora of titles that often we are none the wiser. Where there should be clarity there is confusion. Even the hallowed Chief Executive has become a bit tarnished as companies create subsidiaries and call the top exec the CEO of THAT division. You have to know which bit they are CEO of before you become sycophantic and blush when you meet them.
Sometimes grandiose titles are doled out instead of upping the salary. It's cheaper to give out a title than increase the pay packet. Then there are the titles that are too often given as reward or, much worse, given as kind of booby prize, or worst of all to move someone out of the way. At the heart of all this is the simple thought that companies are not democracies. There is a hierarchy that should ensure things run smoothly. A title can mean everything or absolutely nothing. As one executive told me, "well conceived titles clarify role and responsibility rather than establish power and reach. " Without them, as it says in the song in Mary Poppins "disorder! Chaos! Moral disintegration! In short, we have a ghastly mess".
Beyond your pay grade
So what is my title? Ahh a good question. Well. How can I put it. To some people I am the Senior This. To other people I am the Chief That. I have been known to be the Director of The Other.
What am I you shriek? I Dunno. As they say. Beyond my pay grade and title.
Richard Quest is a CNN correspondent based in London, host of the weekday one-hour program "Quest Means Business". For program highlights and more, go to www.cnn.com/qmb.