'Chief' titles become the carrot to woo top talent

In the war for talent, Jeffrey Wortsman is dangling the prize of a title that confers membership in the corner office inner circle.

The chief executive officer of Danier Leather Inc. is now hunting for the sixth "chief" to sit at the top table. Alongside the CEO of the Toronto-based leather clothing manufacturer, there are a chief financial officer, a chief information officer, a chief marketing officer and a chief merchandise officer.

Now, Mr. Wortsman wants to add a chief sourcing officer, who will also report directly to him.

"I think [the chief title] means a lot to them," Mr. Wortsman says. "It says that they are in charge."

"Chiefs" are springing up like dandelions across corporate Canada, as companies try to woo top talent and department heads lobby for greater recognition.

"Everyone is clamouring to get into the club," says John Challenger, CEO of Chicago-based global outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. "Chief has a certain panache . . . ."

But some recruiters say that the use of chief has gotten out of hand.

There is danger in overusing the "C" title, and diluting the prestige of a true chief role, warns executive recruiter Jay Rosenzweig of Toronto-based Rosenzweig & Co.

"Sometimes, C is less significant than V -- in other words, vice-president," he says.

"A lot of the chief roles are not even executive roles," Mr. Rosenzweig adds, noting that potential management candidates are becoming "desensitized to this big-C concept. "They are becoming more savvy. They may say 'the C thing is very nice but what I really care about is whether it is an executive role.' "

Despite that, the proliferation of chief titles rolls on.

Telephone equipment maker Nortel Networks Corp. is a big fan of the C-title. There are eight senior executives with the chief title, though three of them -- the chief ethics officer, chief procurement officer and chief information officer -- do not report to CEO Mike Zafirovski.

Among the C-titles at Sun Life Financial Inc. is a chief information security officer. Telus Corp. has a chief security officer. Merck Frosst Canada Inc. has a chief privacy officer. QLT Inc. has a chief business officer. And Crossoff Inc. has a chief learning officer.

Amid the explosion of titles across North America have come more unusual ones like chief talent officer, chief synergies officer, chief risk officer, chief innovation officer -- even chief anti-money laundering officer.

Danier has created the position of chief sourcing officer because of the growing importance of managing the global supply chain, Mr. Wortsman says.

Titles are also very important in doing business -- especially in the Far East -- where "chief" signals to business people there that they are dealing with someone with "significant authority and status," he adds.

Chief also gives more clarity to a key job than different levels of vice-presidents, Mr. Wortsman maintains. "It just gives more of a sense of finality as to who is in charge, and where the buck stops."

Not long ago, it was obvious the buck stopped at three chief titles.

Chief executive officers, who oversee strategy and report to a board of directors, were the first chiefs. The chief operating officer (COO), who like a CEO can also be president, is responsible for daily operations. At some point, the vice-president of finance became the chief financial officer (CFO).

With the computer boom in the 1990's, North American companies began introducing titles like chief technology officer or chief information officer for their senior technical person. Fund companies appointed chief investment officers. And then, the floodgates opened.

Chief titles can emerge from a crisis. In 1995, Denny's Corp., the Spartanburg, S.C.-based family restaurant chain, which now has 51 outlets in Canada, created the first chief diversity officer post in North America after Denny's settled a class-action discrimination lawsuit.

Some companies have jumped on the chief bandwagon because "it's important to keep up with competitors . . . to ensure that feathers aren't ruffled," Mr. Rosenzweig adds. "It's a chain reaction."

The explosion of chiefs also stems from the ease of using the title as reward without a cash outlay, adds executive recruiter Tom Long, a Toronto-based partner with Egon Zehnder International. "Titles don't actually cost anything so it's one of the few things that you can give without there being a direct impact on compensation," he says.

But with the chief title being so overused, "over time, if everybody is at the C-level, they are going to have to look for other ways to create contrast that they value a function or top executive differently," Mr. Long says.

Despite the cachet attached to the C-title, some executives don't take it too seriously.

Toby Singlehurst, who was hired last fall as chief development officer for the Moncton-based fast-food chain Pizza Delight Corp., says his new title is not a big deal. "The title has a bit of wow factor, but once you are past reading the business card, it's life as usual," says Mr. Singlehurst, a former vice-president of real estate and development with Cara Operations Ltd.

While chief executive officer may be the corporate title with the most prestige, Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books & Music Inc., seems to find it a bit too stodgy at times.

Known for her passion for literature and having promotional fun, Ms. Reisman delights in simply being called "chief booklover."

Hail to the new chiefs

Chief people officer:

Len Jillard describes himself as a people person. Now, he has the title to boot. After climbing the ladder at McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd. for 33 years, he became chief people officer in December. As head of human resources, he champions the fast-food chain's "people promise" to value employees and ensure they can grow within the company. He reports to president Louie Mele.

Chief ethics officer:

Susan Shepard may have a CEO title but not quite the salary. Her job at Nortel Networks Corp. is to ensure the telephone equipment maker leaves its accounting scandals behind, and raises the bar on its corporate ethics. A former member of the New York State Ethics Commission, she reports to Dennis Carey, Nortel's executive vice-president of corporate operations.

Chief talent officer:

Leo Houle's job at BCE Inc. is to hire and keep the best talent. Besides handling traditional human resources functions, he makes sure employees at the telecom giant get the knowledge and leadership skills needed to execute the company's business strategy. He reports to Stephen Wetmore, BCE's group president of corporate performance and national markets.

Chief anti-money

laundering officer:

Ron King's job is to combat the illegal flow of money and terrorist financing. As chief anti-money laundering officer at Bank of Nova Scotia, he makes sure the bank complies with Canadian laws and regulations aimed at preventing illegal money being funneled through the bank, and reports suspicious transactions to a federal agency. He reports to Joan Smart, the bank's senior vice-president of group compliance.

Chief risk officer:

Steven McGirr looks out for land mines. Appointed last year as chief risk officer and senior executive vice-president at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, he oversees the bank's myriad of potential financial, compliance and operational risks. Mr. McGirr, formerly president of the bank's brokerage arm, reports to CEO Gerald McCaughey.

© Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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