Category shift the C-Suite: time to reconsider the basics?

Often the biggest important change we need to make relates to something basic. Something nobody thought was part of the problem.

But because the basic thing is…well, so basic, it’s easy to leave it out of our consideration set – meaning that qualitative change is hard to achieve.

So it’s interesting (to me, anyway) to think about something very basic and fundamental in the business world. A single word – a label – we use to categorise our leaders. And how shifting it in another direction might help manage change – or create new impact.

Businesses are trying to change all the time. So we hear, constantly: time to change this, evolve that, transform the other, paradigm shift, etc. It’s become the mantra. But it doesn’t seem to happen. Partly, because it’s hard. But perhaps also because real ideas to drive paradigm shift – however you need to define it – are left out.

Despite the strategies. New visions, innovation, positioning. The M&A blitzkrieg. The bimodal shifts. The digital empowerment. The blizzard of powerpoints. And – increasingly – transformational C-level changes.

New roles, old roles revisited and reconfigured for a fundamentally digital world. New ideas, new terms, new people.

Chief Digital Officers. Chief Data Officers. Chief Innovation Officers. Chief Customer Officers. Chief Change Officers. Chief Experience Officers. We keep hearing about how new C-level changes will alter the direction of specific companies, industries and economic models.

But often, it still doesn’t pay off. And perhaps one reason for that, among many (but one that isn’t often considered) is not leaders, but how we categorise them as OFFICERS. What’s amazing to me is that while the middle letter is always debated and evolved, the last isn’t (or hardly ever). Why?

Officer indicates officialdom. Stasis, rules-based thinking, top-down military order, little rooms in vast glass-and-steel edifices. It’s defined authority, bullish competitiveness and testosterone-fuelled debate, and too often, blockage and prevention of change. And mediocre CXOs can hide behind the same labels as the real thing.

Why is the Officer such a popular idea? Because the word came to prominence in a time when all of the above was the only way to make businesses work. In pyramid structures, a strong centralised command based on structure is the best-fit way to transfer order, power and action through the business. Or apparently so.

Now we know differently. Or we should. But we haven’t changed the terms in our equation.

Perhaps – just perhaps – this might not help some organisations, and some leaders, to make the change they desperately want to come about.

Maybe officers need to be something else. Maybe they need to be (just for the sake of argument for a moment) agents.

Agents enable. They act for. They support. They accelerate and ignite. They engage. They don’t seek to command, or rely on structures to support their authority or decisions.

They constantly work to gain and engender trust. They work for the thing they represent, rather than controlling it.

It’s a concept that’s about flexibility, collaboration, dynamism, change. Which is the way our world is, increasingly, gearing towards.

Does that mean all ‘officers’ should suddenly switch to being ‘agents’?

No. Partly because that would be absurd. And ‘agents’ is just another cliche.

Anything that becomes a default term is instantly devoid of meaning.

But name changing isn’t the point. Call everyone instigators and provocateurs if that works for you (probably not – Chief Financial Provocateur is probably something to avoid in a post-Panama leak scenario). If the vision and purpose to drive and support change isn’t there, it’s irrelevant.

The point isn’t the label. It’s that the while we still need leaders, perhaps we need to recategorise how the Officers* that drive our businesses are tasked and measured – and how they’re supported. Rethink what it means to be a leader, in a different age of business – and shift the category of the C-Suite. Away from structure and stability; towards dynamism and change. Through re-defining the basics.

And then, maybe, the guys in the C-suite might make the right change happen more often than they do now.

Always assuming you need a C-Suite at all.

*most of this goes for Directors as well, of course…