The phrase is familiar: “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.” In retailing, where so many firms employ thousands of people, the adage hardly seems applicable. Then again, the CEO and other C-suite regulars are now sharing the “chief’ prefix with a growing list of colleagues. Macy’s has a chief digital officer, Kohl’s has a chief customer officer, and Target has a chief information security officer. In recent years, there’s been a rise in the number of chief customer and chief digital officers hired; some predict that an upsurge in chief content and chief social officer appointments is next.
Retail experts say these new positions reflect the fastpaced change within an industry jumping headfirst into digital transformation. The newly appointed chiefs are tasked with creating business agility, tearing down function-focused silos, and applying their skills to the ever-mounting mission of exceeding customer expectations.
Nevertheless, there are those who are wary. Is the influx of new titles creating more silos than it is removing? Do the new chiefs have a boardroom seat? Will these roles be required 10 years from now—or is this a fad? Not all the newly minted chiefs are regulars in the executive boardroom, but most are reporting to the CEO in some capacity.
“Data show that from the mid-1980s to 2010, the average C-suite doubled. Today that continues,” says Eamonn Kelly, a director with Deloitte Consulting. “Almost all the growth has been in functional, specialized areas. The goal is to transform a business to remain competitive and to focus on the customer holistically. Still achieving that coherence and alignment across multiple strategies is a challenge.”
Maryam Morse, national retail practice leader for Hay Group, maintains that the retail executive team “needs to be close to where innovation and change are happening, and, thus, we’re seeing more positions at the top. It’s not about E-commerce or technology. It’s about putting the customer at the core of decision making.”
It’s become commonplace to link industry trends to the transformation of the customer experience and the rise of digital technology. Several years ago when the role of marketing began taking on amplified importance, the position of chief marketing officer quickly took root and discussions about collaborating with the CIO reached a fevered pitch. Overnight, it seemed, CMOs were tasked with leading dramatic change within their organizations while technology continued to evolve at a rapid-fire pace.
At many companies, the CMO realized that delivering a seamless experience to today’s customer—making shopping more personalized and communicating with engaging con- tent—would require more exacting functional expertise.
“Different skill sets and organizational structures are needed in a digitally driven world,” says Susan Hart, co-leader of Spencer Stuart’s global retail, apparel, and luxury goods practice. “The idea that one single person can do it all may require a change in perception. That’s part of why we’re seeing not just a chief digital officer, but a chief content officer and a chief analytics officer. Tasking people to take on these specialized roles is intended to move the retailer closer to the customer.”
“The number of new chiefs in retail is more a reaction to new developments in the industry than expanding the C-suite,” comments Tom Cole, partner in the retail and consumer group at Kurt Salmon. “There are perhaps more pyramid heads than in the past, but they’re still reporting up to the CEO or the COO.” He adds that naming chiefs goes a long way toward clarifying responsibilities. “It designates who’s at the top of the pyramid and it sends a clear signal—both internally and externally— about the importance of the role inside that retail company.” Morse concurs. “Titles reflect company strategy. Elevating ‘customer experience’ or ‘security’ responsibility to a ‘chief’ sends a message about where the retailer is making its bets and what it values.”
Source: Barry Berman, Joel R Evans, Patrali Chatterjee (2017), Retail Management: A Strategic Approach, Pearson; 13th edition.
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