Do CEOs Really Have All the Power?

In a blog post titled “C is for Silly: The New C-Suite Titles” blogger Jenna Goudreau explores the proliferation of titles elevating people to “Chief” or “C-level” status. The central premise of her piece was to question the relevance of so-called “vanity” titles like Chief Internal Evangelist or Chief Listener. In Goudreau’s post, marketing and management expert Mark Stevens is quoted as saying of the titling game: “It’s a puppet show. These people have absolutely no power.” He goes on to say that “the only ‘C’s’ with ‘real’ power are the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer and, occasionally, Chief Operating Officer.”

While I agree that a fancy title doesn’t bestow any more power than say, an awesome designer business suit, I question the assertion that only a “chosen few” have power in an organization. Mr. Stevens’ quote points out a persistent problem of organizational life and one that drives me crazy:

Why do we continue to confer power and prestige at only the top of the organization?

Power is defined as “One possessing or exercising influence or authority."  So, it’s true that people with “Chief” or “Executive” titles have a higher level of authority than others in their organizations. But there’s a second part to that definition of power— it’s influence. I see the ability to leverage one’s influence as every bit as important as using one’s authority to get things done. And that has nothing to do with a company title.

Here’s a story to illustrate the point:

Years ago, I worked for a large company as a corporate trainer. In the evenings after most of the employees had gone home, I would often stay late to arrange the training room for the next morning’s training class. Over the course of several months, I got to know one of the company custodians, “George." He would come in and visit with me as part of his rounds of cleaning the facility. We had a cordial relationship and he confided in me that not many people paid him much attention and he appreciated our conversations. It was only years later that I learned that George was related to “Bill," our company’s CEO. I also learned that on occasion, George visited CEO Bill to report anything he observed that he thought the CEO should know and that Bill always listened and often took action.

Many people would say that a company custodian doesn’t have the same “power” as a company CEO. If they define power only by a title and authority, they would be right. If they would look past the titles and into the true meaning of power, they would see influence. And they would see people like George the custodian; people who understand that their title doesn’t define them.  Their ability to make a difference through influence does.

Food for thought:

  • Why does the perception that “only people with ‘C’ titles have power” persist?
  • Have you seen effective ways to diminish this perception in your organization? What’s being done?


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