The rise of silly C-suite titles
Chief heart officers and chief empathy officers are invading the C-suite, but don't let their titles fool you: they can still fire you
I thought it was an anomaly when, more than a decade ago, my boss, who functioned as chief executive officer, insisted on being referred to as the "chief enthusiasm officer."
His optimistic mien certainly fit the bill. His belief that everything would turn out all right was unshakeable, whether he was conducting a gleeful affair with the head of the company's public-relations firm (and incessantly posting about their home-cooked meals) or hiring — one by one — the "creative geniuses" who were supposed to ride in as the company's savior. (They each inevitably would fall short of the task.) His title and bonhomie were no doubt designed to make the workplace more familial and welcoming, but in practice his brand of happiness made a lot of people distrustful and miserable — not everyone wanted to float on his cloud of magical thinking.
Despite this tepid response, my former boss may have simply been ahead of the curve with this expressive title. Today, wacky C-suite titles are all the rage. Chief amazement officers, chief heart officers, and chief empathy officers are popping up across companies. In a 2020-2021 analysis, LinkedIn researchers found 51 variations of titles that began with "chief." They also found that titles like chief people officer and chief happiness officer were gaining in use.
While they might be popular, feelings-centric job titles do little more than try to paper over a fundamental part of work: its transactional nature. Your company might operate more compassionately because it hired a chief heart officer, but at the end of the day it's still a business, and that person can still fire you.
What does a chief amazement officer do?
Shep Hyken is the chief amazement officer at Shepard Presentations, a public-speaking company he founded in 1983. For decades he's forged an identity as a customer-service speaker and author, helping companies build relationships with their customers and employees. Hyken started going by his current title at least 10 years ago, switching over from the simplicity of "speaker and author."
Since then he's cultivated something of an "amazing" cottage industry, writing five books with titles such as "Amaze Every Customer Every Time" and "The Amazement Revolution." At the core of his brand is the idea that service should be so responsive that it should amaze customers. "The Amazement Revolution," for example, implores readers to treat customers like "members" and "partners" who are sharing a joyful experience.
Rocket Central, a professional-services company based in Detroit, also has a chief amazement officer, Mike Malloy, who leads "The Pulse," or what most companies call human resources. Malloy conducts the same duties as a traditional HR chief, but his title is designed to be a more accurate reflection of the company's culture. As Malloy told the blog for Workhuman, an HR-management-software company, culture is "the North Star," adding that at Rocket Central, "everything runs on our culture."
Amazement isn't the only new entrant to the office. If you thought home's where the heart is, think again, because the workplace now has a chief heart officer. Outsource Accelerator, a blog on outsourcing work, describes this role as "in charge of the well-being and overall pleasure of the company's personnel." Sometimes the chief heart officer exists in addition to the head of human resources, a role that is increasingly called, more humanistically, the chief people officer. So what does it take to be an effective chief heart officer? Feelings, of course. Claude Silver, the chief heart officer at VaynerMedia and self-proclaimed "first chief heart officer," told Forbes in 2017 that she was "here to be of service" to her staff. She added: "I am living my purpose. It's not a job for me."
While some of these titles have been around for years, there has been a surge in "feely" job titles since the pandemic. This is especially true at the management-consulting company Deloitte. In 2020 it hired a chief purpose officer to help define the company's purpose and help employees understand their own purpose in order to prevent burnout. Last year it rebranded its CEO as the chief empathy officer.
"It's critical for companies to hire and develop more effective managers and leaders," the company said in an invitation to a webinar about the CEO rebrand, adding: "That requires looking beyond traditional strategies for management development and cultivating the skills most important for success. In the last years, especially in times of pandemic, one of those skills is empathy — a vital leadership competency."
So what's behind this surge of feelings-centric job titles?
What's in a name
Even when the titles seem awkward or risible, in many cases they represent a company's honest attempt to grapple with a new employment paradigm. These emotive titles and roles have emerged as a sincere response to the COVID-19 pandemic's seismic effects on where, when, and how people work. Companies are trying to paint an attractive picture for current and prospective employees, seemingly saying: Come work here, we take care of your heart.
"With the rise of the remote/hybrid model, we believe that the HR leader's role should evolve to cater to the employees' needs and expectations," Nilesh Thakker, the global head of talent at Zinnov, a 20-year-old management-consulting firm, told me. "What's in a name — or, in this case, a title? Is it a reflection of business need, or a reflection of changing times, where alignment of purpose, relatability, and outcome are all encompassed in a title, be it chief enthusiasm officer or chief amazement officer?" He offered the example of how the "chief remote officer" has emerged to help companies manage the shift toward hybrid work and working from home, saying that "roles like this will become a key part of organization design."
Silver positions her role as chief heart officer as essential as the dynamics between working from home and returning to the office continue to play out. In an interview with Emotional Intelligence Magazine last year, she said: "We really listened to our people to see what works best for them, because at the end of the day, working from home has worked. We've had two wonderful, incredible years, and we have been able to balance patience and ambition." She added, "Kindness is the most important role, and then I think if you take the word empathy, which is the emotion, kindness and compassion are the actions of it, that's how you show that you care." To hear Silver tell it, the pandemic has all but necessitated that businesses demonstrate more heart.
Thakker attributed the rise in these novel titles to the shifting expectations of a new generation entering the job market. "With businesses going fully remote and the continued increase in generational diversity in an organization with the influx of Gen Z in the workforce, the need for hyperpersonalization will only go up," he told me. "Roles like chief remote officers will be critical to ensure a cohesive and uniform remote/hybrid and in-person experience as the war for talent will continue to ebb and flow in different business cycles." In some ways, the new touchy-feely roles are a Gen Z version of the age-old — but still common — "we're like a family here" ethos.
The real heartbreaker
But both familial associations and emotive titles can have a darker side. The family structure presupposes a level of intimacy, loyalty, and protectiveness that would be odd in the workplace, especially given the power imbalances that exist between the people who do the work and the people who can fire them. Family is permanent; employment is not. In trying to adopt this more personal language for C-suite titles, some companies are trying to get employees to ignore the cold reality of this fact — and create an environment in which employees are expected to extend total loyalty to the company while the firm doesn't give the same kind of commitment in return.
Trying to turn a company into a family, a meeting of hearts, or a series of loyalty tests is likely to result in a minefield — a world of hurt. Families, after all, can be incredibly dysfunctional too. Many workers have discovered the hard way that cringy familial language was simply an attempt to excuse dysfunction, inappropriate comments, and potential harm to employees. Do you really want your personal relationships, your life choices, and whether you've gained or lost weight up for discussion at work?
Making a business seem like something other than a business can be a recipe for confusion, and titles and management styles that emphasize a family-like environment can make some employees squeamish; not everyone is comfortable sharing their feelings with their boss and coworkers. Titles like chief heart officer — and arguably even the term "corporate culture," not to mention phrases like "work spouse" — feed into this emotional ambiguity.
Business is still business. Humane titles — as admirable and responsive to changing times as they may be — should never obscure the fact that sometimes it's the head heart officer who eventually breaks your heart, by firing you.
Drew Limsky has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Metropolis, Robb Report and Architectural Digest.
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