What is the C-suite?

They are the most powerful and influential people in any company and, in the case of large organisations, in the world, but who exactly are the C-Suite and what are they responsible for?

What is the C-suite?

The C-suite are the highest-ranking senior executives in an organisation. So called, because of the “C” representing the word “chief” in many corporate titles. Also known as “C-level executives”, these are the roles responsible for leading a business and its respective departments and, as such, are the most powerful figures in the company.

What is a CEO? 

The chief executive officer (CEO) is the most senior C-suite executive in a company and, ultimately, responsible for managing the organisation as a whole. Charged with maximising the company’s value, CEOs report todirectly the board, and may even be the chairman themselves. The face of the company, every other role reports to the CEO, requiring them to be strong leaders with a vision for the framework and direction of the organisation.

C-Suite members climbing ladders

As with business, the nature of the CEO’s role is changing all the time, and there are indications that a stronger marketing focus may be required from the CEOs of the future. Executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles found the proportion of European chief executives with a marketing background grew from 15 per cent to 21 per cent between 2011 and 2015. Dave Lewis, Tesco’s chief executive, was Unilever’s marketer responsible for Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, while Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe is a former Tesco marketing director.

It is also no longer the case that CEOs must grow for years with the brands they come to manage. “CEOs are a broad bunch, but there’s an appreciation they no longer need to ‘serve their time’ like they used to,” says Brenda Trenowden, former managing director of Lloyds Banking Group. “Nowadays, being at one company all your life could work against you. They need broader experience. They have to be better communicators, more attuned to different groups, grasp technology better and be more agile.”

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What is a CMO?

The chief marketing officer (CMO) is the executive responsible for all of an organisation’s marketing activity. This can include market research, brand and product management, communications, pricing and customer service. CMOs must create and lead a marketing strategy which can generate business and brand growth.

“The current landscape is forcing CMOs to become complete businesspeople.” says Bob Liodice, chief executive of the Association of National Advertisers. “Not just expert marketers, they now need to be solid and expert growth champions. It’s about mastering measurement and accountability; it’s about mastering the digital media supply chain; and it’s about mastering talent and diversity, from gender equality to multiculturalism.”

Today’s CMO must be as comfortable with data science, technology, econometrics and analytics as they are with agencies and creatives. They’re as likely to be accountable for go-to-market campaigns as they are churn management and loyalty, digital transformation, and developing innovation pipelines.

Jeff Dodds, TalkTalk’s managing director for mobile and former CMO of Virgin Media comments: “It’s not that marketing has changed; if you go back to the original definition of marketing being about the seven Ps [product, price, place, promotion, people, process and physical evidence], that’s fundamentally what a CMO is grappling with today, it’s just taken a while for organisations to catch up and place all of those responsibilities under one leadership role.”

Consequently, the path to this C-suite marketing role is also changing, with future CMOs likely to have a background beyond the traditional creative and communications routes.

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What is a CFO?

The chief financial officer (CFO) is the executive responsible for managing a company’s finances. This includes financial planning, record-keeping, financial risk management, data analysis and financial reporting. Ultimately, the CFO is the top of the career ladder for any accountant, and is one of the roles which most commonly leads to becoming CEO.

Member of C-Suite looking at wall full of post-its

“Stephen Robertson, chief executive of the Big Issue Foundation says hard financial success got him noticed by a headhunter. “It was all about what I’d demonstrated,” he reflects. “Commerciality mattered. Yes, a CEO is about relationship building, but it’s hard to demonstrate this at interview, so financial background has sway. Hirers want to remove the speculative element that taking on a CEO can be.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that a head for figures is still a trait most chief executives share. According to 2016 research by recruitment firm Robert Half, more than 50 per cent of FTSE 100 heads have a finance, accounting or financial services background and 25 per cent are ex-accountants.

But not every CFO has CEO aspirations. An Ernst and Young survey from 2016 found that more than 70 per cent of finance leaders did not aspire to be CEO. The aim was to be a more objective, independent voice at the boardroom table, one which brought facts and reasoning to bear on the more intuitive skills of the C-suite.

In order to do this, however, the future CFO will need a different set of skills to those traditionally honed by the finance function. And top of the list, according to an EY report, is an understanding of digital, smart technologies and sophisticated data analytics. Instead of being an essentially historic and backward-looking function, finance has to become much more active. With technology taking over the grunt work, the entire finance function is upskilling and the CFO has to lead the change.

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What is a CIO?

The chief information officer (CIO) is responsible for managing all IT and computer systems within an organisation. This includes everything from creating policy and strategy to talent management, procurement and systems maintenance within the department.

The future CIO, however, will have a lot more on their plate than IT issues. According to a 2018 report from Gartner, 84 per cent of CIOs at top-performing organisations have responsibility for areas of the business outside traditional IT, the most common being innovation and transformation. “The CIO’s role is transforming from delivery executive to business executive,” the report says.

The role of the CIO has evolved in parallel with the growing development and influence of technology. As tech has become essential for businesses, CIOs have become a mainstay of the organisation. They have switched from being a back-end IT executor to a strategic and influential member of the board tasked with delivering growth.

There is no point in a CIO sitting with the rest of the C-suite, however, if their voice isn’t heard, ensuring technology can make a meaningful impact on the business.

“You need to lead the conversation with the business first and have a broader set of skills including the need to understand financials; you can’t just sit in the meeting and wait until technology comes up and shut up the rest of the time,” says Richard Steward, former CIO of advertising business Clear Channel and UK consumer goods firm PZ Cussons.

To do that, the Bank of England’s executive director and CIO Rob Elsey suggests CIOs must understand the business drivers, the threats to the organisation and the opportunities. Crucially, he says, the CIO needs to be able to “demystify technologies to the board”.

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What is a CDO?

The chief data officer (CDO) is responsible for a company’s data governance, something which is becoming increasingly important in today’s data age. Organisations are moving to becoming more data-driven, and the CDO must ensure that data is relevant, protected and easy to access.

C-Suite CDO glasses in front of data on screen

Nic Orton is CDO for global data analytics organisation LexisNexis Risk Solutions; “the success of my role is considered in the ultimate performance of the business, but more directly I ensure we use the right data in the right way,” he says. “There is a consensus that the data universe is doubling every two years, with a 50-fold growth between 2010 and 2020. I promote innovation, but also ensure focus and trust.”

“We have four main metrics: uplift to products through added value; insight and intelligence for ourselves on customers, competitors and markets; potential for advanced analytics; and quality.”

“The success criteria for a chief data officer need to flow from an organisation’s digital strategy” says Brenden Dalton, CDO and chief information officer for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Canberra. “If that pushes disruption, for example, then the CDO needs to work with a higher tolerance to data risk.”

“So a successful CDO needs to unite an organisation in its appreciation of data risk and decide on the right level of oversight for business units, and how much freedom to give them.”

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Whatever the role, it is clear that the remit of the C-suite is constantly shifting and evolving, no one member can remain solely within their field and all must be able to work together to tackle the issues facing business today.

What do you need to make the C-suite?

  • Confident communication skills, especially when collaborating with the board and fellow C-levels
  • A good understanding of data and emerging technologies and how they apply to your organisation
  • Strong leadership ability
  • An agile mindset and a willingness to upskill where necessary to adapt to a shifting business landscape
  • A competent understanding of all areas of your organisation