Companies ideally select their executives based on the prospects of optimum performance of the business. Along with the CEO, the C-Suite consists of the executives in charge of the functional specializations at work within the company: legal, marketing, technology, operations, and the like. There is an art to selecting the right C-Suite team that is in many ways not what you might expect.
A clear risk within organizations is when the executives in charge of departmental functions are too good at what they do. This is surprising, and perhaps counter-intuitive, but a key to placing people in these roles is having the right combination of technical expertise, general business acumen, and importantly — motivation placed in the right direction. Many excellent functional specialists would not be good C-level executives because of the overwhelming interest they have towards their specialty. Here are some examples:
The Chief Technical Officer should be a good technical agent, with a strong understanding of the technical domains at work within the organization; this technical expertise coupled with an even more powerful understanding of and desire to fulfill business objectives is the true recipe for success as the technical leader of a company. The risk is when a CTO is motivated more powerfully by uses of technology than the imperative to achieve business outcomes. A CTO that understands (and feels) business first and foremost, and is adept at using technology to satisfy business objectives is ideal. It is clear to see in this context that a CTO who lives primarily in the technical domain and understands technology far more clearly than the business side of the organization is much less likely to provide the best technical path forward – inevitably deciding to allocate unnecessary time, investment, and use of company resources in the technical sphere.
The Chief Legal Officer (General Counsel) must be an excellent attorney, with wide experience and knowledge of the legal code. This base of knowledge, when coupled with a fierce understanding and motivation for business objectives presents us with a great fit; on the other hand, an attorney enamored primarily with the law, and nuances therein, with business acumen a distant second skill is not likely to be as good a fit. The ideal chief legal officer connects the business forward into its needs for safety, legitimacy, and correctness, along with expediency and pursuit of optimal value. A ‘lawyer’s lawyer’ would not likely bring this balance – over-securing, over-litigating, or over-complicating through his or her decision-making.
The Chief Marketing Officer is in charge of the company’s all-important communication channels, and is responsible for managing company messaging and dollars used to connect the business with customers in an efficient way. The risk of having a CMO that is mostly invested in the marketing tool-set (at the expense of ‘deep-down-to-the-bones’ understanding of the business) is that activities driven by the marketing team may be great displays of talent and budget but may not map to company outcomes in a clear way. This happens when high profile opportunities to spend money are available and acted upon when they should not be. The CMO that efficiently connects the business and its needs with the world of marketing and its unlimited opportunities to spend money is the CMO with the rare ability to say ‘no’ to budget, ‘no’ to opportunities to exercise marketing tools when they cannot be truly connected with business outcomes.
The same thought process applies within all the other specialties on the executive team: The members of the executive suite each stand with one foot in their specialization, and another foot in the central business concerns of the business. The mistake of putting the most excellent functional contributors of an organization in top roles can be costly, as it inevitably puts a heavy burden on the CEO to rein in the often diversional tendencies of executives with decision making power, but objectives that may conflict with the big picture. Gone are the days where technical or functional proficiency are enough to rise to the top level in a company. Executives that are good in a functional specialty and even more highly versed in communication, analysis and the details of the business are the preference of boards and chief executives to join the C-suite.
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