What is the C-suite?

They are the most powerful people in any company, but how do you join the ranks? Read on to learn about the roles and responsibilities of the C-suite

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The C-suite comprises the highest-ranking, most powerful figures in an organisation. C-level roles – so-called because ‘C’ stands for ‘chief’ – are responsible for leading a business and the respective department. 

What positions are in the C-suite?

The traditional C-suite covers an organisation’s core functions (finance, human resources, marketing, operations and technology). But as businesses and their needs evolve, new C-suite roles are created.

For example, as cybersecurity and data have become increasingly pressing issues, the chief information security officer (CISO) and chief data or digital officers (CDO) have joined the CIO or CTO in technological executive roles. Similarly, to cope with the growing importance of sustainability and ESG, many organisations have appointed a chief sustainability officer (CSO) or chief green officer (CGO). 

The C-suite roles at a company will depend on its particular make-up and goals, which means C-level initialisms can be for different job titles. A CCO is commonly the chief commercial officer but can also be a chief compliance or customer officer. The ‘R’ in CRO often refers to revenue but can also be used for risk, research or relationship. Sometimes, to refer to any role in the C-suite the initialism CXO is used but for many businesses this can also mean chief experience officer. 

There is no sign that this trend for proliferating C-suite roles is slowing down, so we have chosen to cover the most common.

Click a role to learn more

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What is a CEO?

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

Core CEO attributes include public speaking, strategy, communication and people skills, and a high level of business acumen, particularly financials. While the demands of each business will vary, there are some qualities you can’t do without, says Nick Canney, CEO of Innocent Drinks. “If you aren’t a self-starter, it’s going to be tough,” he says. 

The chief executive is also there to shape and protect the culture of a business. “As CEO, you’re there to create conditions for everyone else to shine,” says Fiona Gordon, CEO of advertising firm Ogilvy. “You have to be good at handling conflict, making decisions and moving forward.” 

There are other similarities that many CEOs share. According to the most recent census data, the average British CEO is male, white, identifies as straight and does not report having a disability, a profile which becomes even narrower when examining the CEOs of the FTSE 100

Read more about the ceo 

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What is a CFO?

The chief financial officer (CFO) is 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 an accountant and is one of the roles that most commonly leads to becoming CEO.

In recent years, the CFO’s role has widened to become a strategic member of the C-suite for a range of areas. Ian McLaren, former CFO of Govia Thameslink Railway and now group CFO at the Peel Ports Group, agrees. “When I started at GTR my remit was simpler, whereas now I’m using a much broader range of my skills,” he says. “Some might think the finance director’s role is all about cost-cutting. But to me it’s more about value creation; we are becoming value creation officers.”

Naturally, this means the skills required of a good CFO have also changed. Beyond a head for numbers and an ability to balance an organisation’s various financial needs, the modern CFO must be up to speed on legal and governance issues, strong negotiators to structure commercial deals and technologically savvy, particularly when it comes to risks around cybersecurity. “Today, finance roles need to be augmented with many more skills,” McLaren agrees. 

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What is a CMO?

The chief marketing officer (CMO) is the executive responsible for an organisation’s marketing activity. This can include running ad campaigns, 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.

As with every role in the modern C-suite, silos are out and cross-functional collaboration is in. What this means is that marketing leaders can no longer simply be experts in their field: they must understand technology, operations and how to craft successful people strategies. So broad and strategic is the role becoming that some major organisations are choosing to merge C-suite roles to account for this new reality.

One such organisation is pharmaceutical giant Bayer (owner of Redoxon, Clarityn and Bepanthen, among others). Bayer’s CMO Patricia Corsi is also the company’s chief digital officer and chief information officer. “This is a very powerful combination, even if it’s not a very common one,” she says. “Because there are so many commonalities between the commercial area, I lead with one part of my job, and then digital and technology and data analytics. It’s like when you add gasoline to a very fast car.”

Another is food multinational PepsiCo. The brand recently hired Mustafa Shamseldin as the CMO and category growth officer for its international foods division, bringing operations and marketing closer together. “It’s a small change in title but the way we work has changed,” he explains. “If my role was only marketing, we would go from strategy to some brand work and stop there. Now we start with business priorities. Some of the work is brand-led, some is not, but we think about business model changes and innovation and take it from there. It’s about having an end-to-end view.” 

For Shamseldin, this shift has changed his priorities and how he thinks about the marketing function. “I’ll be judged on growth, on margin improvement, on how I’m transforming the portfolio. I get a bit surprised sometimes when marketers talk about campaigns and how they performed. That is execution, tactics. Marketers must be responsible for business objectives.” 

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What is a COO?

The chief operations officer is the C-suite member responsible for managing the manufacturing, production, sales, personnel matters and day-to-day running of an organisation. Though the role will differ from industry to industry and firm to firm, the COO’s duties can include working with the CFO to create an organisation’s budget and monitor the financial processes, overseeing the implementation of health and safety standards, completing staff performance reviews, and collaborating with the rest of the C-suite to create strategies for growing the business or compensating for losses. 

For Ann-marie Murphy, COO of The Gym Group, a strong background in human resources provided a lot of the necessary skills for her transition into operations. “It wasn’t much of a switch at all. People are the operation; people are the product.” 

The operations management of an organisation like The Gym Group involves a range of functions. “A lot of research goes into deciding where to open a new gym, in terms of costs and [consumer] habits,” Murphy says. “And while every building may be different, we strive to ensure that the same levels of cleanliness, high-quality equipment and customer service are maintained at every one.” Her responsibilities include poring over customer feedback to decide on the classes and facilities to offer to achieve the profit the group needs to expand. 

A previously low-profile role, or one where the responsibilities were shared across several functions, the COO’s star is now on the rise. According to McKinsey, 40% of leading companies had a COO in 2022.

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What is a CHRO/CPO?

The chief human resources officer or chief people officer is responsible for leading the HR function in a business and managing its people. 

In some organisations, the CHRO or CPO may be called on to screen candidates, hire employees, support staff training and development, make decisions about compensation and conduct performance reviews. How hands-on an HR leader chooses to be often comes down to the person. Rodolfo Camacho, the international CPO at Kraft Heinz, even gets involved with the hiring process for the food giant’s trainee programme. “I sit on every interview panel with the senior leadership team, so we meet all the trainees,” he says. “We want our trainees to be the future leaders of this company, so we treat them accordingly.”

But at other, often larger, companies the role can be complex and strategic. Along with leading the wider team, the CHRO must design overarching strategies for talent acquisition, retention and succession planning. They must align the HR function with the business’s wider goals and be a strategic adviser to the CEO and the rest of the C-suite. And they must help to shape and protect the company culture.

Unlike other C-suite roles, HR leadership often varies less from company to company, sector to sector. At least, so says self-appointed “talent guru” Steve Cadigan, who has held the CHRO role at companies such as Cisco and LinkedIn. “The greatest thing about HR is that you can work in any industry, profit or non-profit,” he explains. “Human interaction is always the same.”

Read more about HR 

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The growing importance of technology in modern business can be seen clearly in the proliferation of tech-related C-suite roles.

The chief technology officer (CTO) is the senior executive tasked with managing the technological requirements of an organisation. The chief information officer (CIO) oversees and implements all IT and computer systems. The CDO can be either the chief digital officer, who helps companies convert from traditional business models to ones fit for the digital age, or the chief data officer who is responsible for a company’s data collection, governance and storage. Then there is the chief information security officer (CISO), whose focus is cybersecurity. Sometimes these roles even merge, for example certain companies may have a CDIO (chief digital and information officer). 

In all these roles, the executive officer understands technology, tools and processes well enough to decide what works for an organisation, and what is an unnecessary investment. They will have to craft and implement strategies to drive growth, protect from risk or streamline operations. They will be the expert voice in the boardroom, helping to shape the strategy for the organisation. And they will be the head of any IT or technical teams, with all the associated personnel responsibilities. 

One of these personnel-based responsibilities is hiring the right technical experts for your team. Although all these C-suite roles require a degree of tech-savvy, trying to know everything in sufficient detail and depth is a fools’ game, says Jeanie York, CTO of Virgin Media O2. “The skills you need are changing every year, so the reality is that you can’t possibly know everything,” she says. “Some people are good generalists and others develop strong specialisms. To be successful, a business needs both types of people.”

Bayer’s Corsi agrees. In her unusual role as CMO, CIO and CDO, she has seen first-hand how mindset can trump technical knowledge in a C-suite position. “I strive every day to be very good at asking good questions. You don’t need to be a specialist in anything to do that,” she says. “[Adding IT] does make things complicated, but it’s exciting and it puts me closer to the business. Sometimes if you’re in a chief marketing and digital role that’s global, you can feel detached. When you’re doing end-to-end IT, you’re in the business every day.”

Read more about CTO/CIO/CDO/CISO

What qualities 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

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