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      What Is a C-Suite Executive? CEO vs. CFO vs. COO

      Provided by Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business

      Shorthand for a company’s top tier of executives, the term C-suite derives from the first letter of the high-level executive titles used by many large enterprises. The most common C-suite titles are chief executive officer (CEO), chief financial officer (CFO), and chief operating officer (COO). These C-suite leaders, also known as C-level executives, make decisions that can determine success or failure for their companies.

      Reaching the top level of leadership in major companies often requires many years of experience as a professional climbing the corporate ladder, demonstrating executive ability along the way. Another way to become a top executive of a large company is to start a small business that gets big. No matter how they begin their careers, C-suite executives must demonstrate both technical competencies and a wide array of soft skills related to communications, leadership, and strategic vision.

      Factors that determine the number of C-suite roles in a company include its size and the nature of its business. Trends in technology and consumer preferences also play a role. For example, customers accessing their bank accounts online expect seamless experiences no matter which device they use. If they log in using their laptops, they expect to see account information that matches what they see in their mobile app. For some companies, this may require creating a C-level role to oversee initiatives that involve integrating multiple systems and processes, touching on sales, marketing, operations, and technology.

      Standard Executive Leadership Roles

      Major publicly traded companies typically need several C-suite leaders. Standard executive roles include a:

      • Chief executive officer (CEO)
      • Chief operating officer (COO)
      • Chief financial officer (CFO)
      • Chief technology officer (CTO)
      • Chief information officer (CIO)
      • Chief marketing officer (CMO)

      Smaller operations typically only need one C-suite executive, at the most two or three. A small business may have individuals leading key functions of a company, such as finance or marketing, who do not hold C-level titles.

      Executive Leadership Challenges

      C-suite executives face a wide range of challenges:

      • Coping with market changes driven by unforeseen global events
      • Creating new business models that meet evolving customer requirements
      • Promoting corporate responsibility to help address issues such as climate change and equality
      • Identifying their successors to ensure business continuity
      • Ensuring compliance with changing tax codes and industry regulations
      • Attracting and maintaining top talent, including enhancing the diversity of the workforce to include more women and minorities in leadership roles

      To meet these challenges, C-suite executives combine their foundational knowledge of business and technology with leadership skills, ethics, and a strong moral compass. Graduating from a top MBA program can provide aspiring business leaders with essential knowledge and critical skills to thrive amid changing market dynamics.

      Top 10 Worries of Executives | Executive Recruiters | Cowen Partners

      The Evolution of The C-Suite: Titles & Roles

      The digital transformation of many business operations — sparked by the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence and the increased availability of massive amounts of data — is changing the landscape for leaders with C-suite titles. These trends create opportunities for executives who have both a solid foundation of technical knowledge and the agility to adapt as market conditions change.

      The term digital transformation encompasses the advances in technology and telecommunications that have changed the ways that consumers and businesses engage in transactions. The proliferation of artificial intelligence and mobile technologies, increased use of data in everyday life, and expanding 5G networks offer examples of digital transformation driving change in the business world and society at large. For example, 73% of millennials make many of their buying decisions online, according to Harvard Business Review. The reason, in large part, is that they are digital natives: they grew up using social media and smart devices in their daily lives.

      The evolution of today’s market brings a profound change in large organizations in the areas of innovation, digitization, strategy, and ethics, creating opportunities for expansion of the C-suite to address the challenges. This can be seen in the growing number of new C-suite titles and roles. About 80% of CEOs surveyed said their companies had added a C-level position in the last five years, a 2019 report from EY found.

      New Executive Roles Created in the Last 5 Years

      Among the top C-suite roles added in the last five years are:

      • Chief innovation officer (CIO)
      • Chief digital officer (CDO)
      • Chief strategy officer (CSO)
      • Chief data officer (CDO)
      • Chief ethics officer (CEO)

      This creates new opportunities both to enter the C-suite and to advance within the C-suite. At the same time that the C-suite has been evolving to include more technology-related roles, the ranks of executives have become more demographically diverse. Progress remains to be made in this area, however. 

      Executive Diversity

      Bizwomen reports on an early 2019 study that found a slight increase from the previous year in the number of women serving at the C-suite level, from 23% to 25%. Corporate boards of directors have also seen increases in diversity. The number of board seats held by women and minorities at Fortune 500 companies increased from 1,677 in 2016 to 1,929 in 2018, according to a Deloitte report. In a global, more diversified business marketplace, C-suite executives will increasingly reflect the demographics of their employees and customers.

      Executive Leadership: Education & Credentials

      Aspiring C-suite leaders looking to stand out from the competition can build their knowledge and competencies to learn how to innovate and think ahead. A Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree can create opportunities for professionals seeking corporate roles such as CEO, COO, and CFO.

      A 2018 Harvard Business Review report notes that 32 of the 100 top-performing CEOs held MBA degrees, an increase from the previous year. MBA coursework provides students with essential business and management knowledge. Courses can cover topics such as finance, technology management, innovation entrepreneurship, international management, marketing, and sustainability.

      CEO vs COO vs CFO: What’s the Difference?

      The CEO is the highest-level C-suite role in a company, followed by the COO, then the CFO. In other words, COOs are usually second in command while CFOs are typically third in command.

      In terms of roles, CEOs focus on long-term strategy and, in some smaller businesses, the daily operations of a company. COOs oversee business operations, like sales, marketing, HR, and more. CFOs oversee a business’s finances, including budgeting, revenue, profitability, financial controls, and more. The CEO vs COO vs CFO each plays a unique role in a business; still, their positions should coalesce to support the success and long-term goals of a company.

      Below is a closer look at each role, along with its responsibilities, required background, and average annual salary.

      What Is the Role of a CEO?

      The chief executive officer (CEO) role is the highest-level C-suite role in a company and the highest paid. CEOs are responsible for maximizing business value by setting the vision, long-term goals, framework, and direction of the organization.

      Day-to-Day CEO Responsibilities

      Day-to-day responsibilities for CEOs vary according to factors such as the size of a company and the industry in which the company operates. The larger the company, the more likely the CEO will devote significant amounts of time to developing a long-term strategy. CEOs at publicly traded companies must answer to boards of directors and work to maximize return on investment for their shareholders. In small to medium-sized companies, CEOs may involve themselves more extensively in the daily work of running the business.

      CEO Competencies

      CEOs bear responsibility for the success or failure of their companies. They make crucial business decisions. Successful CEOs typically exhibit strong competencies in these two key areas:

      1. Communicating with audiences of various types and sizes: CEOs must be able to connect with direct reports in one-on-one sessions, with C-suite peers, with media representatives, and sometimes with large groups of employees, customers, or shareholders.
      2. Adjusting to changing circumstances: CEOs must understand their industry and the markets in which their company operates. They need to know their company’s strengths and weaknesses and those of its primary rivals. To succeed, CEOs must be lifelong learners, acquiring knowledge as they climb the corporate ladder. They hone their leadership skills through problem-solving and learning from their mistakes.

      CEO Education & Background

      As for education, many CEOs have a business-related degree, often an MBA. However, educational backgrounds for CEOs can vary by industry. For example, a CEO of a hospital may have an advanced degree in a field of medicine or healthcare administration. Similarly, some technology CEOs have programming or engineering backgrounds while some private equity CEOs may have backgrounds in the financial services industry.

      CEO Salary

      CEO salary ranges may vary according to company size and whether it is public or private. The median annual salary for CEOs is about $156,000, as of March 2020.

      What is the Role of a COO?

      The chief operating officer (COO) is the second-highest C-suite executive rank after the CEO. The primary responsibility of the COO is to oversee business operations, which may include marketing and sales, human resources, research and development, production, and other functions.

      COO Responsibilities

      COO responsibilities vary by company size and type. COOs often work side by side with the CEO and other C-suite executives on strategy. The most common duties of the COO role include overseeing day-to-day administrative operations, different functions of the business, and critical projects.

      COO Duties & Competencies

      A good COO translates the vision and mission set by the CEO and board of directors of a company into a strategic plan of action. Then, the COO oversees the plan’s execution and manages directors and senior managers tasked with transforming the vision into reality. For example, a CEO may call for improved quality control of products to elevate the company’s reputation. The COO will then develop plans that may include hiring more quality control workers and establishing new policies and procedures for them to follow.

      As operations experts, COOs must be problem solvers. Then duties of a chief operating officer often include the following:

      • Setting performance and quality standards for the production and delivery of goods and services, as well as workplace procedures
      • Leading efforts to streamline the business; for example, directing initiatives to improve communications across the enterprise, foster collaboration, and keep everyone on the same page
      • Improving operating procedures and the role technology plays to enhance performance and make the company run more efficiently
      • Hiring top talent and preparing employees for success
      • Ensuring all areas of operations perform optimally by collecting and analyzing data
      • Implementing strategies to meet both short-term and long-term business objectives

      COO Experience & Background

      A person who has risen to become a COO has acquired extensive experience in business practices, policies, and procedures, which prepares him or her to direct multiple departments. As the second in command, COOs are typically next in line for the CEO role. Among the best-known former COOs who went on to become CEOs is Tim Cook of Apple Inc. COOs typically have a business-related degree, such as an MBA.

      COO Salary

      COO salaries vary according to company size and whether the company is public or private. The median annual salary for COOs is about $143,000, as of March 2020.

      What Is the Role of a CFO?

      The chief financial officer (CFO) oversees a company’s finances. A CFO analyzes financial data, reports financial performance, prepares budgets, and monitors costs. CFOs of publicly traded companies must present financial information to boards of directors, shareholders, and regulatory agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

      Day-to-Day CFO Responsibilities

      Daily, CFO responsibilities generally include:

      • Overseeing accounting and finance functions
      • Assessing investments
      • Supervising staff members who manage functions such as purchasing, debt management, accounts payable, and payroll
      • Reviewing reports about revenues, profits, and losses regularly to develop strategies that can improve financial performance
      • Understanding tax laws and changes in IRS regulations
      • Conducting audits to ensure that all departments are following company standards

      CFO Duties & Responsibilities

      Reporting to the CEO, CFOs help define the financial vision for the company. CFOs can serve as strategic advisers to CEOs and other C-suite executives. Typically, CFO duties and responsibilities include (and are not limited to):

      • Making recommendations on strengthening the financial standing of the company through strategic investments
      • Assessing how market forces can impact a company’s revenue and profitability
      • Expanding revenue opportunities while reducing costs
      • Strengthening financial controls

      CFOs in public companies must also pay attention to shareholder interests. Today’s shareholders monitor not only a company’s financial strength but also the degree to which its financial practices meet standards for corporate social responsibility.

      CFO Experience & Background

      Before arriving at the C-suite, CFOs have typically served in various accounting and finance roles throughout their careers, including finance director and controller.

      CFOs, especially private equity CFOs, usually hold at least a bachelor’s degree in finance or accounting. However, a recent EY report found that 75% of CFOs think the CFO role involves more than working with numbers. According to the report, CFOs are also partners with the CEO. This evolution of the CFO role may encourage individuals seeking entry into the C-suite to pursue an MBA degree.

      CFO Salaries

      CFO salaries vary according to company size and whether it is public or private. The median annual salary for CFOs is about $133,000, as of March 2020.

      Executive Leadership & Diversity | Executive Search Firm | Cowen Partners

      How to Become a C-Suite Executive

      The path to the C-suite is not always straightforward. Some aspiring leaders move up through the ranks of organizations, acquiring the experience, skills, and knowledge to take on C-suite positions along the way. Others may take a less conventional path and reach the C-suite by starting a business and guiding its growth.

      Each C-suite role relates to different functions within a company. Still, every C-suite executive should have a working understanding of all areas of the organization, as actions in one area often affect others.

      See CEO vs CFO vs COO salaries here

      Key Executive Skills & Competencies

      Essential competencies needed for C-suite professionals include the following:

      • Strong business sense, leadership competencies, and the ability to set a vision
      • Excellent moral compass and sense of ethics
      • Strategic and analytical mindset
      • Effective communication skills
      • Deep understanding of data and emerging technologies

      Whether they work at large enterprises or small ones, aspiring professionals often find that an MBA can help set them on the path to executive leadership at the highest levels. MBA graduates can acquire the core business knowledge and habits of entrepreneurial thinking that they will need to thrive in a global economy in constant flux.

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