What a glorious time to be job-hunting in the US! I'm not talking about the relatively low unemployment rate; I'm referring to the high rate of job-title inflation: the inventive, whimsical, and often grandiloquent job titles that await even entry-level applicants.
Remember, for example, when companies had receptionists? They're in short supply today: the person sitting at the front desk is now likely to be a "director of first impressions" (requirements: a high school degree and "a desire to help others"). Remember (if you're old) when hiring and firing were done by a personnel manager or (if you're less old) by a human resources director? So twentieth century! Today, you're likely to be "onboarded" by a "chief people officer" and supported on your employment "journey" by a "chief happiness officer."
Historically, restaurant jobs had straightforward descriptions like "prep cook" and "server." Now a certain healthy-fast-food chain hires part-time "superfood ninjas" whose super-duties include cleaning the kitchen and carrying food to customers. (But not, one assumes, espionage and assassination, a ninja's traditional jobs.) Another restaurant chain took its fast-casual descriptor literally when it gave its culinary director the title "chief food dude." Trader Joe's, the nationwide specialty grocer, calls the person who handles corporate marketing "director of words & phrases & clauses." And at Archie McPhee, the Seattle-based toy and novelties company, the head copywriter of more than 20 years answers to "director of awesome."
Meanwhile, at the top of the corporate ladder, you'll find an army of chiefs: not just the chief executive officer, chief operating officer, and chief financial officer but also, perhaps, a chief knowledge officer, chief sustainability officer, chief agility officer, chief visionary officer, chief listening officer, chief knowledge officer, chief content officer, and, yes, chief people officer and chief happiness officer.
When did these increasingly specific yet often perplexing titles begin appearing? And what do they signify about the way we regard work today?
The origins of the trend go back more than a century, when "chief executive officer" and its initialism, CEO, were first used—not, as you might expect, in the US but in Australia, as early as 1914, according to the OED. There were scattered examples of American "CEOs" in the US in the 1950s, but the title and its abbreviation really took root later, writes blogger and independent researcher Louis V. Galdieri:
When the figure of the CEO emerges in the 1970s, the heyday of the man in the gray flannel suit has reached its nadir. In America and throughout the industrialized West, the postwar boom – which witnessed the rise of the managerial class – has yielded to a grim post-industrial reality. … I think it's no coincidence that with the arrival of the CEO on the scene, the "financialization" of the economy has begun.
Legally, US corporations are required to have only three officers: president, secretary, and treasurer. With the advent of the CEO, though, came pressure to chief-ify broadly. The treasurer becomes the chief financial officer; the person who implements day-to-day business decisions becomes the chief operating officer. (The equivalent of CEO in UK companies is "managing director.")
All that is prelude to the tech economy that began in the late 1990s and brought invention and disruption to job titles as well as to products and services. Einar Stefferud, the co-founder in 1994 of internet-money pioneer First Virtual Holdings, is generally recognized as the first "chief visionary officer"; the title has since proliferated throughout corporate America. The eminent computer scientist Vint Cerf, now 76, has served as Google's "chief internet evangelist" since 2005. (He has said that he originally asked, impishly, for the title "arch duke.") The "chief knowledge officer" title — not to be confused with a "chief information officer" — began appearing in the late 1990s in North America and Europe to describe a person who is the "custodian of knowledge management practices in an organization." The "chief agility officer" began appearing after the publication in 2001 of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development; he or she is charged not with calisthenics but rather with implementing the engineering and operational system known as Agile.
A special subset of titles borrow from non-American cultures. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to appoint "czars": officials who oversaw a specific policy. Eight decades later, President Obama appointed 38 "czars," the highest number to date. Outside government, you&'re more likely to encounter "ninja" (Japanese: a person trained in ancient martial arts), as in "data ninja" or "accounting ninja"); or "sensei" (Japanese again: "teacher"), as in "executive sensei" or "chief strategy sensei"); or the aforementioned "sherpa" (from the Tibetan language). (For more on the ascent of sherpa in corporate jargon, see my 2013 column.)
Alongside the fanciful names, many organizations maintain conventional job titles, such as the hierarchical ones for software engineers — junior, intermediate, senior, staff, principal, and so on. Sometimes a whimsical title is added to soften or brighten a serious function. Earlier this year, for example, YahooSecurity officially changed its name earlier this year to "The Paranoids" — and yes, there's a "chief paranoid." The business card of Parisa Tabriz, Google's senior engineering director, reads "security princess."
Why the need for fanciful titles in the first place, and why do they keep proliferating? Russell Fleischer, a venture capitalist and former tech-company CEO, wrote last year that some companies create them "to appear like they're paying attention to a particular business function":
Others use C-level titles to combat the shortage of high-level talent in sought-after fields. CEOs and recruiters figure that if they give someone a "Chief Something" title, instead of a more-traditional VP or SVP [senior vice president] role, an on-the-fence job candidate might be more likely to sign on the dotted line.
That was the case with Dan Lyons, a laid-off journalist with decades of experience who took a job at a marketing-technology company, HubSpot, and wrote about it in his 2016 book Disrupted. When his new employers dubbed him a "marketing fellow," Lyons was a bit dazzled. "The title was unusual, but also pleasing," Lyons writes, "with a quasi-academic ring to it and an implication that my role would be to serve as a sort of éminence grise at the company." But the dazzle wore off quickly: "In fact the title marketing fellow implies that you are not really a part of the company; you're a visitor, a temporary hire, someone who is being kept at arm's length."
Or in Russell Fleischer's slightly jaundiced view, "If everyone's a chief, no one is."
For now, at least, I see no end to the fanciful-title trend. In fact, I'm part of the problem: My name-development consultancy is Wordworking, and I've called myself "chief wordworker" for more than 20 years, because none of the alternatives — president, founder, owner, principal — sounded right.
Too unserious for you? Then you might consider job-hunting in Japan, where corporate titles follow the same formula in virtually all companies, from "chief executive officer" and "vice president" at the top to &"assistant section manager" and "supervisor" at the bottom. And not a ninja or sensei anywhere.