What Does "C-Level Employees" Mean?

filadendron/E+/GettyImages

C-level employees are the top senior executives in a company. Also known as C-suite executives, the "C" stands for "Chief," and they're the most powerful people in an organization.

Examples of C-Level Employees

There are no rules determining what an executive may be called. If you own your own business, you can call yourself whatever you like, from Chief Executive Officer to Chief Sales Ninja. Ten common C-level titles include:

  1. CEO: Chief executive officer
  2. CFO: Chief financial officer
  3. COO: Chief operating officer
  4. CIO: Chief information officer
  5. CDO: Chief data officer
  6. CMO: Chief marketing officer
  7. CTO Chief technology officer
  8. CAO: Chief analytics officer
  9. CHRO: Chief human resources officer 
  10. CSO: Chief sustainability officer

In most businesses, the CEO title is usually the most common, followed by the CFO. Other C-level positions depend not just on the size of the company but also its requirements. An online marketing company, for instance, may have a greater need for a CDO than a CHRO, whereas a staffing agency may have more need for a CHRO than a CDO.

Company Ranking Systems

In a typical business rank structure, the CEO is above the other C-level executives and reports to the board of directors. The CFO, CIO and other C-level executives report to the CEO. However, businesses can all have their own structure. In some cases, for example, the CFO may be of equal rank to the CEO, reporting directly to the board.

Company presidents may report to the CEO or to the board. All other employees are usually below the C-level executive in charge of their departments. Marketing managers would report to the CMO in the marketing department rank tree, while the HR manager would report to the CHRO in the HR department rank tree.

The Role of the CEO

A Chief Executive Officer is often described as the ultimate boss in a company, whose job is to make the important decisions, manage communications and steer the company in the right direction. When a small business has a CEO, it's usually the company founder. You can be the CEO of your own company even if you don't yet have any employees to direct. Today, a CEO's ability to lead is often determined by her effectiveness as an ultimate team leader.

While maintaining company growth has always been a priority for CEOs, a 2018 Gartner survey revealed that most need to focus on new innovative ways to do this, as constant, incremental annual growth isn't as easy to achieve as it has been in the past. Working with other executives and encouraging them to think outside of the box in their specific areas of expertise can often be the driving factor behind a company's success. If a CEO isn't, for example, particularly savvy in digital technologies, she may need to rely on the CIO's expertise to reduce costs and increase profits.

Some CEOs are inclined to see their role as that of a parent, giving unconditional support while also setting specific limits. This doesn't mean that the CEO isn't a hands-on executive – far from it. The Gartner survey revealed that the top CEOs are more than ever looking at making fundamental changes within their organizations to foster growth in new ways, rather than merely tweaking current conditions to increase profits by a few percentage points.

Traits to look for in a CEO include intelligence, awareness, good judgment, confidence, charisma, authenticity and empathy.

The Role of the CFO

While a CEO doesn't necessarily need a specific degree or background to excel at his job, this isn't true for a Chief Financial Officer. In most cases, a CFO should have an advanced degree in finance, accounting or an MBA.

A CFO is usually responsible for controllership, which includes reporting accurate financial information about the company to shareholders, creditors and other stakeholders. A CFO is also usually the treasurer, responsible for determining risk, liquidity and for balancing debt with equity and internal financing.

Traits to look for in a good CFO include computer skills in financial or accounting software, excellent communication skills and an understanding of risk. A CFO should have a firm understanding of finance laws and regulations, as well as the latest financial trends and developments. He should know how to create financial statements, budgets and other business documents, as well as know how to assess those written by others.

The Role of the COO

A Chief Operating Officer is the person in charge of a company's daily operations. While the CEO is responsible for the overall company vision, the COO is the one who puts together the action plan to make it work. He's responsible for making the big decisions that will make an organization run efficiently while reducing costs and increasing profits. In large companies, the COO usually manages several different divisions within the organization, which can include supply chain management, sales, marketing and accounting.

In small businesses, the COO often takes on a more specialized role like managing the daily operations of specific projects, while the CEO may oversee other projects while also overseeing the COO.

Traits to look for in an effective COO include a strong, practical business sense. They should usually have a degree in business or one that specifically relates to the company's operations like software development or engineering. Someone with a successful background in management that includes strategic planning, implementation and the ability to produce measurable results may also make a great COO.

The Role of the CIO

A Chief Information Officer is in charge of a company's information technology (IT) systems and its related services. Up until a decade or so ago, the CIO would have been mainly responsible for procuring new technologies to help a company thrive in the new century. This would have included the purchase of new computers, servers and software and, in many cases, building a company's entire IT infrastructure from the ground up. This was why, at some companies, the CIO was known as the Chief Innovation Officer.

Times have changed, however, and today the CIO is more responsible for maintaining and updating systems that are already in place. In smaller organizations or those that are just starting out, the CIO may be responsible for procuring new systems. However, 80 percent of a typical CIO's budget is likely to be dedicated to maintenance rather than innovation. In a 2016 survey by International Data Corporation, only a quarter of CIO's identified their roles as being innovative.

Nevertheless, advancements in technology continue to move forward, and a CIO must stay abreast of those changes. Traits to look for in a CIO include a thorough knowledge of current technologies and the ability to keep up-to-date on new trends and changes. A CIO should also be a good leader and an excellent educator, able to explain new procedures and protocols to the company's employees. For many companies, constant innovation is part of the corporate culture, and it's often the CIO's responsibility to instill that culture on others.

The Role of the CDO

A Chief Digital Officer is a relatively new C-suite position. As the title suggests, the CDO can be in charge of anything digital, including data, software and a company's internet presence. Approximately 20 percent of the largest 2,500 public companies in the world have a CDO.

While a CDO may be in charge of all information technologies in a company, in other companies there's a clear distinction between the role of a CIO and a CDO. In these companies, the CIO would be in charge of internal technology, including the maintenance of the computer network and its servers, while the CDO would be in charge of client-centered technology like development software to be sold or developing a new online sales platform, including its marketing.

Innovation and technological savvy are the main traits to look for in a good CDO. A degree in computer science or a related field is often a requirement.

References

Resources

About the Author

A published author, David Weedmark has advised businesses on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years and used to teach computer science at Algonquin College. He is currently the owner of Mad Hat Labs, a web design and media consultancy business. David has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines and websites including American Express, Samsung, Re/Max and the New York Times' About.com.