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Human Resources

Complete Guide to Business Leadership Titles

Chief leadership titles can be confusing; CCO, CDO, CLO—what do they all stand for? What about mid-level positions, like Director, Manager, VP—how do these differ?

In this article we attempt to clarify and define the most common leadership roles in a business. Not all companies have these positions (in fact many won’t even have half of them), and oftentimes these roles shuffle around quite a bit. But this should provide a general guide to leadership roles within a business or organization.

Chief Leadership Roles

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) - CEOs are the highest-ranked leaders in a company or organization. They are responsible for the stewardship, decision-making, strategizing, management and execution of goals which are (for most companies) set forth by the Board of Directors. The extent of their authority varies depending on the legal structure of that particular business and whether or not the CEO is also the Chairman of the Board (this is common, but not always the case). In non-profit organizations this position is often referred to as an Executive Director. In larger companies, a CEO is sometimes assisted by a Chief Strategy Officer, who helps develop and execute strategic initiatives.

President - Many companies do not have a President, but for those that do, the President is often considered ranked just below the CEO. Sometimes the CEO is also the President, but in most cases the President is also the Chief Operating Officer (see below), who is responsible for managing day-to-day operations of the business. The President often delegates tasks to the VPs of different areas of the business.

Founder - The Founder is the creator of a company. In young companies and startups with little to no employees, the title of Founder or Co-Founder is often used to designate the creators and leaders of the organization. Oftentimes the Founder becomes the CEO as well, but as the company grows or is acquired the Chief Executive Officer role may be taken over by others.

Chief Operating Officer (COO) - Also referred to as the Chief Operations Officer or the Director of Operations, the COO is a high-ranking position in a company. A COO manages day-to-day business operations and communicates company activities to the CEO on a regular basis. The role of the COO is shaped in relation to the needs of the CEO, and the relationship between the two is generally considered one of the most important.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) - The Chief Financial Officer evaluates financial risks, calculates forecasts and conducts regular cost-benefit analyses on new projects. The CFO reports to the CEO and Board of Directors. They often work closely with the COO to determine the budget needed for projects. In academic and research institutions this position is usually referred to as the Chief Business Officer. Leaders who specifically manage the investments and assets of the company are called Chief Investment Officers.

Chief Technology Officer (CTO) - Also called the Chief Technical Officer, this position is common amongst tech companies. The CTO often has a strong engineering or scientific background, but sets broader goals for technology development that they will lead others in establishing. In predominantly research-based organizations, the position may be called (or also held by) a Chief Science Officer. For companies with a strong online element, a similar position may be held by a Chief Web Officer, who is responsible for guiding the company’s web presence.

Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) - The CMO is the head of the company’s overall marketing initiative and develops the primary strategies for sales and advertising while contributing to product creation and distribution. Because it is difficult to concretely evaluate and validate the financial benefits of most marketing initiatives, this is considered one of the most difficult positions to keep.

Chief Communications Officer (CCO) - Also referred to as the Public Relations Officer, this person manages the company’s communications with the public, media and even employees and shareholders.

Chief Information Officer (CIO) - This position, also called Information Technology (IT) Director is the primary person responsible for computer systems and technological infrastructure of the business. While the CTO develops new technologies, the CIO strategizes ways to leverage already existing technologies and improve overall technological resources for the company.

Chief Legal Officer (CLO) - The CLO, often referred to as general counsel, is the chief attorney for a company’s legal department. The CLO is expected to observe and identify any legal concerns that may arise in the workings of the company, both internally and externally, and report any problems directly to the CEO. More recently CLO’s have also been used as direct advisors to the Board, tackling complex legal issues that used to be outsourced to outside firms.

Chief Data Officer (CDO) - The CDO is a data specialist responsible for data acquisition, mining and analysis. They often work closely with the CTO, CIO and CMO, and of course the CEO.

Chief Digital Officer (CDO) - While the Chief Digital Officer shares the same acronym as a Chief Data Officer, their positions vary significantly. The Chief Digital Officer is often brought in by paper-based organizations looking to drive growth by “digitizing” one or several elements of their business, such as marketing, data storage, collaboration or online sales.

Chief Creative Officer (CCO) - The Chief Creative Officer, also sometimes referred to as the Creative Director or Executive Director, helps develop the branding, marketing and image of a company by setting a vision for the creative team (this may include designers, copywriters, creative directors, etc.). This position is common amongst companies that provide creative products to clients, such as design studios or ad agencies.

Chief Learning Officer (CLO) - CLOs are the primary decision-makers when it comes to learning or talent development and management. They often have a background in education or corporate instruction, and help shape training programs within the company to enhance the professional development and skills of its employees.

Chief Networking Officer (CNO) - The role of a CNO varies depending on the company, but they are generally responsible for managing the company’s social relationships with other organizations and consumers, and building “networks” of partnerships.

Other Leadership Terms

Vice President (VP) - The term “VP” is rather fluid, but generally refers to a high-ranking position that reports to the CEO and President. A Vice President may be a stand-alone role, or held alongside another Chief Leadership role (for example, “Vice President and Chief Financial Officer” is a common role combination). There also may be a “VP” for each department, such as a “VP of Product Development” or “VP of Marketing.” Sometimes the term “VP of Marketing” is used instead of the “Chief Marketing Officer”; however, both roles may also exist within a company.

Chairman - A “Chairman” refers to the highest member of a board, and in a corporate setting often refers to the Chairman of the Board of Directors—as mentioned earlier, this position is often held by the CEO. However, there are other positions with this title, such as Executive Chairman, who is separate from the CEO and wields influence over company operations. In some cases the Executive Chairman is even more influential than the CEO.

Director - This term is used to denote a position of leadership, but a Director’s rank in the pecking order varies depending on the structure of the business (for example, the “Director of Marketing” may be synonymous with “Marketing Manager,” or it may be a position above it). The title may be used to describe an individual in a large company who runs a particular locale as Regional Director.

Executive Director - This term (along with Creative Director) is often used to describe the chief director of non-profit organizations (see Chief Creative Officer).

Manager - There are many types of Managers, but in general they are responsible for leading the direction of a particular team in a business. Managers usually get their directives from and report back to the VP or the CEO. Project Managers are assigned resources, a team and a specific project to accomplish, and lead in that particular endeavor (but not necessarily outside of that project).

Supervisor - Also referred to as a Boss, Coach or Coordinator, this position is often just below that of Manager. The Supervisor generally starts out with the same level of experience as the members of their team, but is promoted to lead the group due to excellence (this may not be the case for a Manager, who may be brought in from outside the team). Supervisors manage the day-to-day activities of their team, while Managers makes broader decisions and communicates progress to higher-ranked members of company.

Article by Rochelle Bailis