Role Fluidity & C-Suite Conflict- Is the CEO Aware?

We hear a new CXO title almost daily. Chief Digital Officer, Chief Marketing Technologist, Chief Innovation officer, Chief Engagement Officer, Chief Belief Officer and a lot many. What do these designations or titles stand for and in what ways is the discourse impacting organizational functioning, is a matter of serious deliberations.

Through this article, I would like to bring forth a contemporary enterprise phenomenon, ‘role fluidity’. The phenomenon highlights the fluidity and the emergent nature of CXO roles and the struggle for bringing roles under one’s ambit as that gives access to more resources, in other words, more power. How does this power play unfold and how it is handled determine the effectiveness of the C-Suite and the organization functioning.

Before we further get into this debate let us first understand the three elements of this phenomenon- title, role and person. One may think how are these three different? Well in a highly stable environment they may be one, as title defines the role and a person assumes the role. This relationship remains unchanged and unchallenged for long. But that is not the case in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment organizations are operating in today.

1. Title

Titles or designations are generic labels, which convey a set of general attributes related to an organizational position. E.g. the label CEO denotes a position as the head of an organization, conveying an image of a set of defining attributes and role activities. Such images are being created through the general discourse. Such labels are being created in the public space by the media and other interested participants.

2. Role

A role is a situated phenomenon, i.e. it exists in time and space. A role is a bundle of expectations from a position in a particular organizational space and in a point in time. Hence, a role of a CEO in organization X would be very specific to that context and may be very different from the role of a CEO in organization Y. Similarly, who performs the role is also context specific. E.g. organization P may have the CIO (chief information officer) leading the digital initiatives, whereas in organization Q it is being handled by a newly appointed CDO (chief digital officer).

3. Person

Person represents an individual embodying skills, competencies, behavior, experiences and aspirations. It is the person, who aspire to gain more power by acquiring more and more organizational resources and one way of doing so is defining role(s) to one’s own advantage. E.g. both a CFO and an SBU head may want to bring ‘acquiring funds’ activity under one’s role or the CIO and the CMO may want to lead the new digital initiatives. It is the actions of both of them and those around them, which will define how is the activity done and who does it.

In a dynamic environment, organizations are dealing with newer aspects, which are beyond the traditional role definitions, on a regular basis. Who and how one deal with these newer aspects is a source of role fluidity, power struggle and individual politicking.

Is the CEO Aware?

CEOs must be aware of this phenomenon because if left unaddressed, it has the potential to create conflict. It is not necessary that every label created in the outside domain needs a new position, role and a person within the organization. The need is to appreciate the newer aspects conveyed by the new titles or labels, bring it into the C-suite debate and create a structural adjustment for the same, in other words clarify on who will do it and how it will be done.

If left to the participant CXOs to sort it out, role fluidity related conflict can sap vital energies of the CXOs, create confusion and hamper organizational functioning. Any conflict, confusion and logjam at the top soon reflect upon the way organization copes with the market pressures and its performance.

Is that a new aspect of the CEO role?

Well, yes it is and that requires CEOs to focus internally and create enabling structures, processes and culture for people to give their best. And this new role can be done by the CEO alone, no one else can do justice with it.

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