What's with all these chiefs?

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service. He also led major IT programs at the Federal Aviation Administration.

In the aftermath of the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, our management and human resource consultants in the Federal Aviation Administration pointed out that our management hierarchy was replete with the term “chief.”

There were branch chiefs, division chiefs, section chiefs. After this was pointed out, we changed the names from “chiefs” to “managers.” Later, the Smithsonian Institution dropped the term “chief” because it might be offensive to American Indians and replaced it with “senior.” The CIO became the senior information officer. The CFO became the senior financial officer. Luckily the Gray Panthers never noticed, or if they did, they didn’t take offense.

But the term “chief” is once again on the rise. In a search of Wikipedia under corporate titles, you will find in excess of 50 chief (fill in the blank) officer titles. Along with the ever popular CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CTO and CISO, you will find chief officers of administration, communications, human capital, acquisition, creativity and experience, just to name a few.

If you find yourself chief of something, there are two possibilities: You are important and the title is there for all to heed, or you are a hat rack on which a title rests.

Bureaucracies have obscure rules and incentives. When legislation or fads force the creation of a position that reports to the top person in the organization, there is always the question of whether the top person will actually oversee that function. Often, someone is given the title with no real duties or budget. That way the mandate is met but the requirement to fund and supervise a function doesn’t exist.

On the other hand, some positions with the word “chief” in the title do have real functions. How can we tell the difference? Budgets are the purest indicator of public policy and organizational commitment. Functions that are vital have budgets. Meat-inspection programs have budgets. Highway trust funds have budgets — highway beautification programs, not so much.

Although I have never been hung up on titles, there are some limits of logic beyond which I won’t go. Chief debriefing officer, chief analytics officer and chief promotions officer are probably beyond those limits.

In the federal IT world, various combinations of titles and budgets have taken place since the Clinger-Cohen Act was enacted in 1996. Agencies have tried banning the term CIO for everybody except the one person actually at the top of the agency’s IT operations. However, most agencies have sub-unit CIOs, and a CIO Council, led by the agency CIO, provides a loose confederation for governance. If the agency CIO has no budget control, that structure is mostly a paper tiger guided by influence and personal interactions. Career employees tend to like the “live and let live” confederation model, and political appointees are more likely to believe in the one-CIO model. That divide explains some of the churn going on inside many agency CIO offices.

In an age in which we can work thousands of miles from one another, why are we hung up on cutesy titles and reporting chains? It might be that we are trying to substitute for the loss of the day-to-day human interaction that validates us and tells us that someone knows who we are, what we do and why we are important.

This is all coming to you from the Office of the Chief Skeptic, located down the hall from the chief knowledge officer.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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Reader comments

Thu, Dec 19, 2013 Darcy

40% of the US Army has the rank of Sergeant (highest non-com rank). Same syndrome, different sandpit.

Wed, Aug 22, 2012

We should just do away with all "Chiefs" unless you are a real American Indian. We just can not get over ourselves can we.

Fri, Aug 10, 2012 Bill

I'm a fed employee. My experience has been that it's a power or ego trip primarily. Everyone wants to be called a "chief" in the United States government. Something to brag about whether or not they manage anything or have a budget is irrelavent. I have even seen many contractors who "spin" that they work for the US govt, when what they really do is work as a contractor at a govt center. It's all about ego and perceived power and something to brag about and appear to be better than those around them. And if everyone around them is also a fed employee, the term "chief" raises them above these folks. Ego, perceived power. Separately, if the term "chief" were offensive, why is the president still referred to as commander in chief? I never heard this title revoked even temporarily. By the way I've never heard "section chief" in my 30 yrs as a fed. It's always been "scetion head". Chief starts at the branch level. We must keep our heirarchy correct so the branches can be elevated over the section.

Wed, Aug 8, 2012 Bob Woods

Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. It's clear you are a vital member of the team. It is also clear you are not to stray too far outside your boundaries. You should serve as a "best practice" example to all of us who have been Chiefs of Something. You are an inspiration. If we don't take this too seriously we can all be Chiefs.

Wed, Aug 8, 2012

My wife calls me Chief cook and bottle washer does that count?

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