Though I suppose it’s always existed, I’ve noticed a prevailing trend in which more and more people identify as chief executive officers. From those clicking the fork button on a GitHub repository, to those selling jars of jam on Etsy, it seems many want to wear the badge. Is it really the right move though?
Why is it happening?
While pointing the finger at narcissists and egotists finding a platform from which to self-aggrandise in web 2.0 is easy, I feel making that leap is a bit of a cop-out. Certainly this plays some part, but I imagine other factors are also involved.
Take for example the need to stand out in a crowd. In the business world this is a daily struggle, and the allure of tagging business outreach e-mails as John Smith, Chief Executive Officer, Appleberry Kawaii Enamel Pins may simply prove too strong for some. The rise of things like the gig economy, and exceedingly crippling costs of gaining a further education likely aggravate this, as blog urls and twitter followers quickly constitute legitimate curriculum vitae.
Going hand-in-hand with this is the idea that a business is further legitimised by possessing a CEO. Figureheads have long been inspirers of confidence, becoming icons representing something greater than themselves; Moses, Spartacus, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Bill Gates, Elon Musk; there is no shortage of such figureheads that quickly come to mind. Oftentimes these iconic figures will become and remain more known and respected than that for which that stand. Is it a wonder people might attempt to capture such lightning in a bottle to further their ambitions?
The important question: What is a CEO?
A Chief Executive Officer, as the name suggests, is the chief, i.e. most important, executive officer within an organisation. Rather than me explaining it, allow me to share the definition from Investopedia:
A chief executive officer (CEO) is the highest-ranking executive in a company, whose primary responsibilities include making major corporate decisions, managing the overall operations and resources of a company, acting as the main point of communication between the board of directors (the board) and corporate operations, and being the public face of the company. A CEO is elected by the board and its shareholders.
As this definition demonstrates, the role of a CEO is quite complex, and also quite specific, requiring several determining factors.
Should you really be calling yourself CEO?
The short of it is, if you’re making that decision for yourself, the answer is no. As the Investopedia definition makes clear, a CEO is a position to which someone is elected. I realise this is me making an appeal to authority, but as it tends to be the commonly held and practised process, I feel it’s sufficiently compelling. All the same, let’s look a little closer.
Let’s return to the question of why people are doing this, and the assumption of it being for legitimacy. If a business maintains a website, and that website lists a CEO on a team page, this may, I assume, be thought of as lending credence to the business. I’ve even seen some sites without team pages, simply featuring a ‘message from the CEO’ on the landing page. Funnily enough, ‘contact us’ e-mails are directed straight to the CEO’s personal address in many cases, quickly betraying what’s likely a one-man operation. If I’m finding these tells, I can assure you any sufficiently-sized business will too, as they’ll investigate you before making any business commitments.
The other question is about the nature of a CEO. Is your business sufficiently sized to require a CEO? Are there ample subordinates within the organisation to necessitate someone with executive power to break internal disputes? Are you serving above a board of executives, addressing shareholder meetings, or presenting at corporate functions? The chances are if you’re not, you’re overinflating your position.
What’s the answer?
The important consideration before taking on the title of CEO of your own volition is that demonstrated by the phrase with great power comes great responsibility. While the label CEO may perhaps bestow credibility and status, it also dictates people will hold you to higher standards. CEOs in the established business world don’t usually rise to such positions without years of experience and the lessons that come with them. That’s to say, if a self-determined CEO makes a mistake the business world wouldn’t expect from a seasoned, qualified individual, the associated fallout will reflect that. The business world can be brutally unforgiving, so the question to ask yourself is ‘is it worth it?’
There’s no shame in being an owner-operator, small business owner, or freelancer. It could work in your favour to claim as much, and I’d speculate modesty is much less likely to put off potential business partners than what may be perceived as delusions of grandeur.