What Is a C-level Executive? A Deep Dive Into the Position’s Peculiarities

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    Michael Maximoff
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A corporate hierarchy is built to follow the principles of optimal management. And any company has several levels of managers. C-suite executives are an organization’s top echelon, senior executives of a company, and an essential influential group of people responsible for managing the firm. This term was coined from the word “chief.”

C-level representatives work in a team (suite), ensuring a company’s strategies and business operations align with the established plans and policies.The position titles of top managers included in the C-suite often include the words “chief officer,” while the middle part of the titles varies depending on the field of activity.

In this article, we’re going to:

  • Answer the question “what are C-level executives?”
  • Understand the C-suite meaning.
  • Consider all their primary skills and responsibilities.
  • List the main C-level job titles.
  • Share important tips on how to become a promising C-level executive.

Let’s go!

C-suite meaning

What is a C-level executive? C-level, or C-suite, executives are the employees who are otherwise called “the first persons of the company,” top managers: members of the board of directors and those who report directly to them.

In trying to clearly communicate the C-level meaning, it is worth noting that in different organizations, the circle of C-suite roles may differ. Still, their essence boils down to the fact that they are personally responsible for implementing a company’s strategy and leading a specific function or business unit.

Take a look at some common C-suite positions:

  1. CEO (chief executive officer).
  2. CFO (chief financial officer).
  3. CTO (chief technical officer).
  4. CDO (chief diversity officer)
  5. COO (chief operating officer).
  6. CHRO (chief human resources officer).
  7. CLO (chief legal officer).
  8. CSO (chief sales officer) is also one of the sales position titles.

A clear C-suite organizational structure contributes to positioning a business for greater success. The work of staff below the C-suite (mid-level managers) should be organized similarly. It should have a clear relationship structure and reporting mechanism to ensure maximum efficiency and motivation. All of this is required for achieving both short- and long-term business goals.

C-suite roles and responsibilities

So now that we have answered the question of what is C-suite, let’s find out what C-level executives’ roles and responsibilities are.

In public companies, activities that do not lean toward increased profits for shareholders fall under the control of C-level executives. C-suite members occupy stressful, high-stakes positions and are thus rewarded with decent compensation packages. The average annual salary ranges from $217,144 (CISO, chief information security officer) to $754,713 (CEO, chief executive officer).

C-suite roles and responsibilities may significantly vary depending on the specific position. For example: 

  1. The scope of basic duties of the chief accounting officer (CAO) includes ensuring an organization of accounting in the enterprise, monitoring the rational, economical use of all types of resources, and preserving property. The CAO is in charge of all things within the accounting departments of a corporation, especially the day-to-day operations.
  2. The chief operating officer (COO), main responsibilities include implementing the operational strategy, quality management, and creating a performance indicators system.
  3. And let’s take the chief human resource officer (CHRO) as another example. We will find out that these individuals are senior executives who take on the human resources function in a company, dealing with personnel strategy, talent management, and succession planning. They are leaders in organizational issues and efficiency, owners of HR, and mentors to senior management and the board of directors.

In a separate heading below, we will cover the C-level job titles and discuss their primary responsibilities.

C-level position: Must-have skills for executives

To reach the high echelon of C-suite leaders, one must master a variety of leadership skills and accumulate relevant experience. In their previous positions, most C-level executives relied on functional know-how and technical skills. But as they climbed the corporate ladder higher, they aimed more at visionary perspectives and developed skills for making more robust business management decisions.

Undoubtedly,C-level executivesshould be undeniable experts in their fields. For example, a CMO needs to have far-reaching expertise in marketing. In contrast, a CFO has to have in-depth knowledge of financial and accounting matters to coordinate the work of a company’s finance and accounting departments. But all these specialists have something in common — a strategic mindset to drive crucial business decisions. 

Here are some essential skills employees should practice as they make their way to senior positions in an organization: 

1) Leadership skills

Since top leaders set an organization’s strategic goals and inspire their subordinates to achieve results effectively, leadership qualities are important both for the CEO and every other C-level executive in a company. Take, for example, the chief information officer: Technical expertise is of paramount importance for these team members. However, without C-level leadership skills, they are unlikely to succeed.

Business consultants disagree on the most sought-after type of leadership, mentioning “inspirational leadership,” “take-charge leadership,” “strategic leadership,” “ethical leadership,” etc. However, the bottom line is that the type of leadership required depends on the needs of a particular company in a specific situation.

For example, “visionary leadership” is in high demand in companies that are starting a new path or adopting a brand-new business strategy, while bringing a company to a new, higher level of performance implies hiring people with “take-charge leadership,” etc.

2) Strategic thinking and execution

The key strategic thinking questions are “Why?” and “How?” By developing this skill, C-level management representatives can think globally and have a broader view of the situation, create long-term forecasts when making a decision, choose winning business strategies for a company and transform them into tactical plans, and quickly adapt to changes.

3) Technical skills (technology skills)

It is another essential talent required for every C-suite position, which is constantly growing in demand. This implies having detailed knowledge in the specific field they work in, such as law, finance, or technology.

Having such skills, the leaders can use various techniques to achieve the desired goals. Understanding how technology affects an organization and how to use it to achieve goals is essential. Many technical skills are related to those needed to increase sales, develop different types of products and service options, market products and services, and so on.

4) Team and relationship building

Relationship building is vital for any C-level position. This enables executives to become leaders and motivate employees to remarkable achievements. Besides, such expertise helps them better use human potential within a company.

An experienced manager knows how to build dialogue and set boundaries in their team. A business leader must not only do the work themselves but also create and maintain the conditions to help the entire team work more efficiently. Therefore, the main functions of such a chief are support, association, direction, inspiration, and energy.

Remember that the ability to see a certain talent in another person is an equally important leadership quality.

5) Communication and presentation

Ideal applicants for C-level positions should master the skill of persuasion and possess the talent to profitably present themselves and their ideas to a wide range of stakeholders from various audiences (including the media, government organizations, employees, stockholders, and legislators).

6) Change management

Most companies navigate the challenges of digital transformation, increasing competition, and rapidly changing customer expectations daily.

Therefore, the ability to manage change is critical for senior leaders. They need to develop specific skills, such as encouraging innovation, acting quickly, maintaining a strategic perspective, expanding a company’s external perspective, and inspiring and motivating people — only then can a leader successfully manage changes.

7) Conflict-resolution skills

It is extremely important for leaders that their team’s sociopsychological climate has a positive effect on work efficiency.

The conflict-resolving competence of a leader includes the following: understanding the nature of contradictions and conflicts between people, forming a constructive attitude toward conflicts among subordinates, possessing the skills of non-conflict communication under challenging situations, managing conflict phenomena, and eliminating the negative consequences of disputes.

C-level job titles examples

Here we are going to take a closer look at the basic C-level positions.

CEO (chief executive officer)

Overview: This is one of the most responsible C-level titles, which refers to the second level of business administration, and corresponds to directly managing a company and all its managers. At the same time, the CEO can be a member of the board of directors, which acts as the first-level management unit.

Position holder reports to: board of directors.

Responsibilities: Determines a company’s global development strategy, makes critical decisions, and represents an organization externally, as well as takes care of many other leadership roles. The competence of the CEO must encompass managing all areas of activity; therefore, they bear full legal responsibility for companies’ performances and their consequences.

CMO (chief marketing officer)

Overview: Commercial director or top-management executive responsible for developing strategic and tactical marketing strategies,etc.

Position holder reports to: CEO.

Responsibilities: The CMO defines and approves a company’s marketing strategies and oversees the activities of all marketing departments. The CMO’s responsibilities include new product launches, enterprise sales management, marketing research and communications, distribution management, customer service, service planning, and pricing.

CFO (chief financial officer)

Overview: The chief financial officer deals with the organization’s financial affairs and may be elected from the candidates of the board of directors. Sometimes this position is called “finance director” or “treasurer.” In smaller companies, the chief accountant may take the place of the financial director.

Position holder reports to: CEO or president.

Responsibilities: The range of this executive’s duties includes developing annual budgets, budget planning, overseeing financial reporting, and managing cash flow. The chief financial officer (CFO) takes care of an organization's financial stability, develops its financial policy, and ensures that the current financial status corresponds to the planned one. At the same time, the CFO makes decisions taking into account a company’s strategy, goals, and prospects for its development.

CPO (chief privacy officer)

Overview: This executive is responsible for the privacy of all company data, including enforcement of the privacy policy. The position is especially relevant in companies that work with financial information or medical data.

Position holder reports to: general counsel, CEO or corporate affairs officer, or the head of compliance.

Responsibilities: Managing company policies, procedures, and data management; raising awareness and training employees on privacy issues; managing incident response, including data breach preparedness, etc.

CRO (chief risk officer), or CRMO (chief risk management officer)

Overview: This executive is responsible for centralized risk management, including receiving reports from the heads of departments for controlling credit, market, operational risks, insurance, and portfolio management.

Position holder reports to: CEO and/or the board of directors. 

Responsibilities: CRO carries out a whole range of work relating to the successful management of various types of risks inherent in a company’s activities. In particular, they identify risks, their measurements, analysis, and control, as well as search for ways to minimize the impact of various threats on a company’s activities. 

CAO (chief accounting officer)

Overview: Chief accountant or top management representative responsible for all aspects of accounting.

Position holder reports to: CFO. 

Responsibilities: This manager controls the economic and rational use of all the company’s resources, carries out activities to preserve the company’s property, and partly controls financial planning.

CIO (chief information officer)

Overview: This executive manages his or her business unit, sets the strategic direction for technology development to support the business, and leads their teams in meeting technology challenges and achieving business unit goals. 

Position holder reports to: CFO or CEO.

Responsibilities: Together with other top managers, this employee develops and implements the technology strategy of an organization, controls daily processes to ensure the smooth operation of systems and services, and monitors the operation of data centers. Their responsibilities also include establishing relationships between the IT department and other company divisions.

CAO (Chief Analytics Officer)

Overview: This is a chief business analyst who is responsible for data analysis within an organization. This position, along with that of the chief information officer (CIO), has grown with the rise of information technology and data collection.

Position holder reports to:CEO.

Responsibilities: The manager leads an organization’s data analytics strategy, driving data-related business changes to transform a company into a more analytics-driven one.

CVO (chief visionary officer)

Overview: One of the top management executives, along with the CEO and COO. The term “strategic director” or “director of strategy/development” is sometimes used instead.

Position holder reports to: CEO.

Responsibilities: This executive manages a company’s activities within the framework fixed by the contract; these may refer to separate fields or the whole company. Often, the primary responsibility of the CVO is to create economic development plans.

CSO (chief security officer)

Overview: A manager responsible for the security of a company as a whole. At the same time, their work covers almost all company areas.

Position holder reports to: CEO.

Responsibilities: The CSO organizes and maintains physical security, cybersecurity, and other types of protection in a company.

CTO (chief technology officer or chief technical officer)

Overview: A chief engineer or manager who is responsible for the design and development of new products.

Position holder reports to: CEO.

Responsibilities: This executive is responsible for the technical aspect of a production process, along with the creation and promotion of products considering the organization of technological processes.

CCO (chief compliance officer)

Overview: Head of the compliance department, responsible for reducing an organization’s compliance risks and monitoring the compliance of its internal documents and norms with legislation as well as international and state standards.

Position holder reports to: CEO.

Responsibilities: This manager’s main task is to create an internal control system to prevent financial and reputational losses due to compliance risks — the application of sanctions to an organization by supervisory authorities as a result of revealed facts of noncompliance with applicable laws, rules, instructions, standards, and codes.

CKO (chief knowledge officer)

Overview: This executive is responsible for ensuring that a business maximizes its value and achieves this through “knowledge.”

Position holder reports to: СEO or president.

Responsibilities: The CKO is responsible for intellectual-capital management and is the keeper of knowledge-management practices. A CKO can help an organization maximize its return on investment in knowledge (people, processes, and intellectual capital), leverage its intangible assets (know-how, patents, customer relationships), replicate previous best results, share best practices, improve innovation, and avoid knowledge loss after organizational restructuring.

There are also some new C-level job titlesthat you may find interesting, such as:

  • CDO (chief data officer).
  • CDO (chief digital officer).
  • CDTO (chief digital transformation officer).
  • CISO (chief information security officer).
  • CXO (Chief Experience Officer).
  • CLO (Chief Listening Officer).
  • CCO (Chief Culture Officer).
  • CGO (Chief Green Officer).
  • CHO (chief happiness officer) — 72 companies with this position are listed on LinkedIn).
  • CTRO (chief trust officer). 

How to become a C-level executive

Your professional growth strategies will differ depending on the industry. However, we can give you some universal tips:

  1. Pursue higher business education: Earning a master of business administration (MBA) can help you gain critical skills and receive invaluable professional background.
  2. Choose the proper entry-level position: This will help you gain maximum experience and knowledge without wasting your time.
  3. Gain industry and management experience: You need to be well prepared to compete for a C-level management position. In addition to developing excellent management and leadership skills, focus on growing your own vision for corporate success and find opportunities to highlight your thought leadership.
  4. Build your leadership skills: Do not stop at acquiring industry knowledge and polishing your technical skills — each C-suite executive must have comprehensive leadership qualities.
  5. Start as an entrepreneur: Startup founders are strong candidates for C-suite positions since they can demonstrate enviable team leadership and decision-making skills.
  6. Seek a corporate mentor: No matter what knowledge and ambition you have, the best thing you can do is to learn from the experience of more successful people.
  7. Cultivate your personal brand: Boldly demonstrate your passion and aspirations and surround yourself with like-minded people, which will help you build a reputation as a valued team member and potential leader.

Summing up

C-level managers are essential to any modern business to provide leadership and make decisions that help the company achieve its goals. First of all, they are responsible for making strategically important decisions, either for an organization as a whole or at least a central part of it.

The highest organizational level, top management, is much smaller than the others. Even the largest companies have just a few senior managers. In the army, they can be compared to generals. Among statesmen, ministers. And at the university, rectors.

These people should, first and foremost, be good managers. Work experience, constant personal development, proven responsibility, and the right skill set are critical recruiting criteria. The ability to form a team from scratch or make the existing one work more effectively will also come in handy.

We hope our guide has got your questions answered. Don't forget to check out more Belkins Help center articles for more insights.

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Michael Maximoff
Co-founder and Managing Partner at Belkins

Mike has more than 10 years of experience in the digital marketing and technology sector selling to SMB internationally. Michael leads Belkins' sales force and is responsible for biz development and new partnerships.

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