Title Inflation in the C-suite

Title inflation lurks in every org chart, rears it head in offer negotiations, and is the subject of heated battles come annual review time. The gradual accumulation of ever-more-impressive sounding labels, titles, and levels of distinction to the jobs we inhabit is a byproduct of modern office life. Employees’ desire for getting ahead can lead to your org chart getting out of control with top-heavy titles for even the most middling of middle management roles.

Anyone who has worked in banking knows from personal experience how far title inflation can go if left unchecked. We haven’t seen an entry-level VP role yet, but as labor markets tighten in the ongoing economic expansion, don’t rule it out.

Title inflation in corporate America really took off 40 years ago, when the percentage of white-collar jobs rapidly escalated towards being the majority of all jobs, and when actual money inflation meant that job titles became even more important as indications of status level — and the compensation that goes along with it.

We decided to take a look at the current state of affairs in our database of job titles. We looked for signs of title inflation in “Chief Officer” titles over the past year, and then we also looked for some long-term historical context with statistics from Google’s analysis of title frequency in books over the past two centuries.

What we found won’t surprise you.

Whereas 40 years ago, CEO, CFO, and COO rounded out the entire executive suite, we discovered a rampant expansion of the “Chief” titles into every part of the organization, into narrower and narrower sub-fields, and into emerging roles that once would’ve been individual contributors.

I’ve separated our findings below into a few buckets based on how frequently the titles occurred. We’ll look first at those Chief Officer titles we found with thousands of examples, then hundreds, and then dozens. To round it out, we’ll even take a look at some intriguing Chief Officer titles with just a few occurrences each.

Most Popular Titles

The most popular “chief” titles, with thousands of examples of each in our database over the past 12 months, were Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, and Chief Operating Officer. These classic titles of modern managerial bureaucracy rose in prominence after World War II and replaced earlier titles common before the war such as president or partner or director.

In addition to being the most common, they are also the least adorned of C-suite titles. In most cases job postings for these titles stick to just the three words indicated, with no qualifiers. We did find a few dozen examples of the CFO role being combined with something else — “Chief Financial & Administrative Officer” was most common — while in other cases, we found operations, strategy, or operating added after financial in the job title.  

For CEO, we found no examples of “Chief Executive and Something Else Officer.”

This trio of short, simple, classic titles still form the majority of all chief officer titles in America today.

The Most Significant Titles Growing in Popularity

The next most common tier of titles were common across almost every industry and region, but still not universal at the largest companies. In our technologically-driven and regulatorily-complex age, we found hundreds of examples of job listings for Chief Information Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Compliance Officer, and Chief Technology Officer.

If title inflation provides us with some interesting information about which departments have been most able to persuade their way into the C-Suite, it is telling that it is the fields of technology, messaging, and government relations that have made it first. CEOs elevating these roles have “voted with their treats,” indicating that these subject matter experts are the ones best able to help the company thrive.

Trends: Experiential, Security, Regulatory, and Behavioral

Looking into emerging trends, we found titles with dozens of occurrences that demonstrate the trends as to where titles are heading in the future.

For example, executives responsible for customer or client experience are being raised to Chief titles. We found dozens of examples of job listings for Chief Product Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, and Chief Digital Officer. From these rising titles, we see American companies’ push to invent better products, to cultivate more creativity within the ranks, and to do so especially well online and on mobile. A related emerging title that covers the company’s entire portfolio is Chief Strategy Officer.

It’s not just the customer experience that companies are lifting up to senior levels. In the human resources sphere, as well, we see more companies hiring a Chief People Officer or Chief Human Resources Officer. Chief Diversity Officer was another prominent rising title in this area. Surprisingly, given its increasing popularity in the recruiting field, we saw only a few examples of Chief Talent Officer, primarily in the education industry.  

Security and maintaining client privacy are also being promoted to the C-suite, with Chief Privacy Officer and Chief Security Officer occurring dozens of times each. Companies are worried about their own security, too, and we saw Chief Risk Officer as an emerging title among job postings.

The professions, by the way, aren’t immune to title inflation. In education, medicine, and law, we found several dozen instances of companies or institutions recruiting for a Chief Academic Officer, Chief Clinical Officer, or Chief Legal Officer. Each of these titles was uncommon to the point of being unheard of a decade ago and are now rising in frequency.  

Finally, across the nonprofit and philanthropic industries, Chief Advancement Officer — a role combining donor, community and marketing development — is seeing strong growth.

Outliers That Might Point the Way Forward

We also looked through the data to find instances where a title occurred a handful of times — more than once, but fewer than 10 occurrences in the past year — in order to find hints toward the future. A Director or VP title is sufficient for the leader of these groups for most companies, but we found several examples where firms are boosting the importance of these efforts with a high visibility “Chief” title.

In human resources, we found multiple examples of Chief Culture Officer — as well as Chief Learning Officer; companies are not content to merely recruit and resource their employees today, but are looking to make active investments in improving their output and productivity.

“Data” in all its forms is rising in importance and value. As a result, we found not just Chief Data Officer, but multiple Chief Data Strategy Officers, Chief Data Security Officers, and even a few Chief Data & Analytics Officer roles. That’s a mouthful!

On the sales and client side, we found numerous Chief Customer Officers, along with a very rapid increase in the number of Chief Revenue Officers. Somewhat similarly, we also saw a few Chief Digital Marketing Officers.

The need for more precision in the financial area, with ever greater controls, has led to the hiring of multiple Chief Budget Officers, Chief Trust Officers, and even a few Chief Fiscal Officers.

And an outlier that was the only example we found of a specific “compass direction” word in a Chief title was Chief Northern/Field Operations Officer at the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City. So while not common today, it is interesting to see a first occurrence.

Long Titles — More and More Words!

Another trend in title inflation is the actual growth of the title itself. Where three words used to be sufficient, we found hundreds of examples of Chief titles with four or more words.

Our longest title in the C-Suite was the Chief Human Resources and Civil Rights Officer role at Oregon Institute of Technology. (Suzette Yaezenko got the nod.)

Runners up for longest Chief titles were:

Chief Corporate Communications and Development Officer

Chief Development, Marketing, & Communications Officer

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Chief Facilities Design & Construction Officer

Chief Licensure And Field Experiences Officer

Chief Patient Safety and Experience Officer

Chief U.S. Pretrial Services and Probation Officer

These more detailed titles indicate a level of specificity for the C-suite that is new in recent years. Whereas Chief Officer roles were historically broader with a purview across the entire firm, these very narrow duties combined with a lofty title indicate the importance of the role to the business or organization despite its smaller span of control.

Why Big Titles Happen

So with that rather exhaustive review of the field, it’s worth asking: why? And why now?

It’s cheaper to give a title than give a raise. Perhaps the most cynical explanation for the ever-expanding grandeur in titles is the economic rationale. For a boss, giving a bigger title costs a lot less money than giving a raise, and may make the recipient just as happy.

We’re status-driven. It’s no secret that humans like to know where they are in the pecking order. A fancy-sound title feels like making it. The sense of having reached the upper echelons can be intrinsically rewarding. And beyond your corporate colleagues, it’s affirming to hear Mom, Dad — and maybe your siblings — be impressed with your new and lofty title.

Fewer, larger companies. The average size of an American business is increasing, and the number of public companies has dropped by half over the past two decades. Call it an unintended consequence of a stricter regulatory environment, but with fewer, larger companies, the employees in each have to jockey even harder for position and place. With fewer brass rings to grasp, each one has to be made shinier to encourage employees to stretch for it.

Title inflation — the ever-increasing likelihood that a company will grant impressive sounding titles to positions further down the org chart — is alive and well in our database of high-end professional positions. With more and more positions being invited to C-Suite, look for a Chief ERE Reading Officer to come to an office near you soon!

Marc Cenedella

Marc Cenedella is the founder and CEO of Ladders, Inc., a leading professional careers site. He is the author of the largest career advice newsletter in the United States, reaching an audience of nearly 10 million weekly.

A nationally renowned thought leader on job search, career management, and recruiting, he is frequently sought out by national media organizations for his expert commentary on employment and entrepreneurialism. He has been profiled in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Wired, and Businessweek, appeared on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, and Bloomberg, and has spoken at Ignition, SHRM, and Internet Summit as well as Harvard Business School, Columbia University, and Yale.

He is also the Founder and Organizer of iOSoho, New York City's largest iOS Engineer Meetup, as well as a mentor at TechStars. Before founding Ladders, he was a senior vice President at HotJobs.com, where he served as lead on its sale to Yahoo in 2002 for $436 million.

Hailing from Fredonia, New York, he holds an MBA with high distinction from Harvard Business School, where he was named a Baker Scholar, as well as a BA in Political Science from Yale College.