What is the C-Suite? C-Level Executives Roles Explained

Rating — 5·17 min·August 16, 2023
What is the C-Suite? C-Level Executives Roles Explained
What is the C-Suite? C-Level Executives Roles Explained
C-level executives are the superheroes responsible for an organization’s success. In our article, you can learn about C-suite roles and responsibilities, read about C-level executives of top companies, and decide if (and when) you may need to hire the whole C-suite.
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Key takeaways
  • The C-suite is a group of top managers in an organization.
  • The C-suite may include over 17 different executives. CEO, CTO, CIO, CFO, CMO, CPO, and COO are the most common roles.
  • The responsibilities of C-level executives may vary and overlap: it all depends on the company’s needs and priorities.
  • You don’t need to fill all these roles at the initial stages of your business growth.
  • CxO as a Service may be an alternative to hiring an executive to your C-suite.

Picture this idyllic situation: You arrive at your office at 8am on Monday morning, full of ideas and inspiration. Your startup CTO greets you with great news on new functionality that’s been implemented, the CPO informs you that 14 top-notch candidates are ready to accept a job offer at your company, the CFO is exceptionally busy calculating the revenue, which is 200% of last week’s results, and your organization is thriving with all these talented and ambitious people around.

But who are these people?

What are their daily responsibilities?

And is it even possible to reach your business goals without an army of C-level executives by your side?

In this article, you’ll find out about key C-suite positions, their expertise, and their responsibilities. You’ll also discover which executives you need to work with at the initial startup stages of growth.

Behind every great product are great C-suite executives.

What is the C-suite?

The C-suite or C-board, comprising C-level executives, is a team of top management specialists who control daily operations, initiate the organization’s key activities, define the major directions for growth and development, and are in charge of a variety of duties depending on the particular niche.

C-suite executives help you with daily tasks and support you in making major decisions, bring unique expertise to your product, and take responsibility for a variety of tasks.

  • Leadership

Each representative of the C-suite is a leader of a particular team or department and is responsible for all associated tasks.

  • Management

With leadership comes management. C-level executives control, manage, modify, and contribute to all activities under their supervision.

  • Setting key objectives

Together, you and the whole C-suite can decide on the primary direction of your efforts, key goals, and expected accomplishments. While your common effort may be focused on a major multi-component purpose of an organization, members of the C-suite define key goals for their teams or narrow spheres of impact.

  • Making decisions

Before hiring C-suite executives, remember: These experts are in charge of the defined scope of work. For example, in most organizations, the CTO is fully responsible for making tech-related decisions, while the CPO can decide on things related to human resource management.

Still, decision-making processes vary, and depending on your company’s needs, you may delegate only a certain amount of responsibility to C-suite executives.

  • Contributing to the organization’s success

C-level executives not only develop your business goals, plans, and strategies; they also take actions to accelerate your startup’s growth and achieve goals.

key responsibilities of a c-suite

These are only the primary responsibilities; according to our observations and experience, this list may go on and on, and responsibilities may change, be narrowed down, or scale. It all depends on your business needs and what you would like your C-level executives to do.

WIth a clear vision of the current state of your business, plans for the next 12, 24, and 36 months, and an understanding of C-level roles, you can decide who you should have on your team.

In the next section, you’ll learn about seven key C-level roles in a startup and meet seven specialists that play these roles in their companies.

Different Cs, different responsibilities: seven key C-level experts you may need in your organization

Let’s meet seven key C-level experts in an organization:

  1. Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

If a startup were a symphony, the CEO would be the composer, the conductor, and quite often also a vocalist who plays first violin.

If you’re the founder of a software product, you definitely know how it feels. Usually, product founders and idea initiators play the role of CEO in a startup.

CEOs fill many roles that go far beyond the title. These experts craft, polish, and communicate the idea behind their products to other stakeholders; align the whole team; spread the common vision of the product and its key goals; and manage the whole orchestra to create an unforgettable symphony.

  • Develops the business strategy

The CEO wears multiple hats, but the one labeled strategy development is probably the biggest. A chief executive officer analyzes the market, works on the roadmap for a startup, brainstorms growth opportunities, and develops the business strategy: tasks, actions, and initiatives the whole team will work on to reach the goals.

  • Represents the brand

Typically, the CEO is the face of the startup. The CEO represents the brand and builds strategic alliances and relationships with investors, customers, and partners. Through effective communication and networking, the CEO strengthens the startup’s reputation and explores new opportunities for growth and improvement.

  • Nurtures the internal culture

By highlighting an organization’s core values, the CEO cultivates a sense of purpose and empowers the team to perform better. Even more, the CEO is the cultivator of the company’s culture, turning a group of specialists into a team.

As a one-man-band, the CEO often plays a multitude of other roles and takes responsibility for dozens of things within a startup.

Specialist’s profile: Michael Coch, CEO at HubKonnect

In a book Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick Chris Bradley, Martin Hirt, and Sven Smit say that 45% of an organization’s success depends on the role of CEO. That’s why we’d like to start with this role.

In this section, we highlight the inspiring story of Michael Coch, the CEO and co-founder of an AI platform.

An MIT alumnus, serial startup founder, and pioneer of the AI and SaaS industry, Michael wakes up at a quarter to four in the morning and works on a product that is changing the technological landscape of the restaurant tech industry – an AI-based HubKonnect product. In 2022, Michael was named the AI Entrepreneur of the year.

  1. Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

One should never walk alone. Even if you as the CEO possess technical skills and have an engineering background, you may still need a technical person — an engineer, architect, or coder — to handle the software development-related tasks. Typically, the chief technology officer covers such tasks.

The CTO constructs the technological foundation upon which the CEO’s ideas grow.
  • Develops the technical vision

One of the key superpowers of the CTO is to constantly scan the tech landscape and suggest better, faster, and stronger tools and methods for achieving business goals. The CTO knows exactly how to create a web application and supports the product during idea validation, architecture development, and all upgrades and migrations and contributes to each stage of the product development lifecycle.

  • Leads the engineering team

With deep technical expertise, the CTO provides technical leadership and guidance to development teams.

The CTO is typically responsible for upscaling or downscaling the engineering team and may participate in hiring.

  • Communicates technology decisions

The CTO is the one explaining the reasoning behind technology decisions to partners, investors, and the development team. The CTO’s technical background and management skills allow for developing the startup’s brand and reputation, raising funds, and strengthening both the business and the software product behind it.

What’s the most important – the CTO is the one who knows how to develop an MVP, and is in charge of everything regarding this task.

The CTO defines and enforces the best software development practices and methodologies, boosts the team’s technical proficiency, and ensures that the startup’s software aligns with business objectives.

Specialist’s profile: Chris Wright, CTO at RedHat

Chris Wright is an experienced software engineer, a board member of multiple companies, and the CTO and Vice President Global Engineering at RedHat.

In a Re:Role podcast episode, Chris explains that a deep technical background is a drop in the ocean of skills that a successful CTO should possess:

“There’s the communication around the technology. There’s the leadership aspect of getting people pushing in the same direction, sharing a vision, and then really executing against or striving towards that vision in a way that’s the leadership aspect.”
  1. Chief Information Officer (CIO)

CTOs and CIOs have a lot in common, so quite often, their roles overlap.

In The CTO/CIO Bible, Rorie Devine explains that the CTO could be said to have a bias towards working in the team rather than on the team, while the CIO could be said to have a bias towards working on the team rather than in the team. The CTO may focus on teams’ expertise and ways to avoid product roadmapping mistakes, technologies and their implementations, team processes and development, etc. The chief information officer may zoom out and take a wider vision of the startup’s environment, including hardware, software, networks, and data management.

“The CIO can transform from a technology manager to a business-savvy leader; from a hands-on technical manager to a strategic adviser; and from a support-center supervisor to a proactive change agent.”

– Pearl Zhu, 12 CIO Personas: The Digital CIO’s Situational Leadership Practices

Still, the borders are blurred. The C-suite roles and responsibilities vary depending on the company’s needs, priorities, and preferences.

Specialist’s profile: Chris Bedi, CIO at ServiceNow

An IT innovator and advisor, Chris Bedi applies his expertise to building high-performing teams, collaborating with product teams, and driving growth. Chris describes the role of CIO in his article for The Enterprisers Project:

“The CIO role currently requires the CIO to embody three crucial personas: communicator, salesperson, and influencer.”
  1. Chief Financial Officer (CFO)

The chief financial officer is the top manager of your organization’s financial well-being. No doubt you as CEO will be the one handling all crucial tasks related to the accuracy and timeliness of financial reportings, yet the CFO can take other tasks.

“The top finance job now involves helping the CEO and business heads find new opportunities and assess their strategic and financial merits and risks.”

– Harvard Business Review

Financial executives manage finances across the organization, participate in developing strategies to optimize custom software development cost and other costs within the organization, communicate with investors and other stakeholders, and contribute to three major activities handled by C-suite executives:

  • Planning

The CFO handles all questions related to financial planning. They are responsible for estimating expenses and revenue, identifying potential risks and cost-related challenges, and answering a significant question: Is your business profitable?

  • Reporting

Top financial managers report to C-suite executives on the organization’s financial state.

  • Analyzing

The CFO gains insights from market conditions, reports, and financial metrics and suggests actions to support the company’s strategy and mission.

Specialist’s profile: Gina Mastantuono, CFO at ServiceNow

Gina Mastantuono, chief financial officer at ServiceNow, provides us with a wider explanation of the modern CFO’s responsibilities.

“We’re (CFOs) absolutely being looked at as the strategic partner across the enterprise, connecting the dots across the enterprise,” says Gina. She actively collaborates with all departments across ServiceNow and admits that CFOs have to deal with more global tasks and activities than accounting. Gina contributes to defining the purpose of employees’ work, the talent strategy, and employee engagement. In her interview with Diane Brady, Gina shares multiple insights on the role of CFO and the whole concept of leadership in modern organizations.

  1. Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

The chief marketing officer is one of the key experts within a company where marketing is the main driver of revenue and progress. This role may cover a wide field of responsibilities, from high-level positioning to search engine optimization (SEO) management, and from online metrics to lead nurturing.

  • Brand development

The chief marketing officer analyzes target industries and markets; taps into customers’ insights, wishes, and demands; and develops brand positioning based on this data. The CMO works closely with all members of the C-board and ensures the company’s brand is consistent, cohesive, and coordinated across all departments and touchpoints.

  • Developing marketing campaigns

Planning, execution, and analysis of marketing efforts are also tasks of the chief marketing officer. The CMO ensures marketing effort aligns with the CEO’s vision and the entire product development strategy.

  • Measuring analytics

To measure what can be measured: this could be the motto of the chief marketing officer. The CMO measures and analyzes marketing campaign performance, brand reach, customer acquisition cost, and other essential startup metrics.

The role is difficult. As Matt Blumberg points out in Startup CEO: A Field Guide, “For more than a decade, CMOs have had the shortest tenure among the C-suite roles.” Choosing the right person for the CMO role, as well as choosing the right time to hire a CMO, may be challenging.

Specialist’s profile: Zach Kitschke, CMO at Canva

Zach Kitschke, CMO at Canva, breaks the tendency for shortest tenure. Zach has been working at Canva for over 10 years, though initially he was hired for only one day. As the team grew, Zach took over marketing and customer service tasks and worked in product management and even in HR. Zach started to work with a handful of specialists on the marketing team, and today, there are over 400 experts in the Canva marketing department.

To continue delivering growth and improvement, Zach is focusing on three major directions:

1 – Hiring and making sure he brings the right talents to the organization

2 – Finding advisers and investors

3 – Building an internal community

  1. Chief People Officer (CPO)

When trying to fill this abundance of roles with a wide spectrum of skills, responsibilities, and experience, you may face two huge challenges:

  • How can you find people for C-suite positions in your startup?
  • How can you attract them with your job offers?

Some C-level experts may be your co-founders — specialists you started your business with. But as you search for others, you may notice that skilled experts already have a job. Even with a global recession that has affected the job market, hiring is still a challenge.

That’s when a chief people officer (CPO) comes into play.

Steffen Shebesta, CEO and VP of corporate development at Sendinblue, recommends hiring for the future of your company. He draws our attention to the fact that a CPO should be one of the first partners to build cooperation with and points out that you may need to begin your search before you think you need one.

The CPO may be responsible for multiple things:

  • Talent recruitment

The CPO is in charge of developing and implementing strategies to find, select, attract, and hire the right talents for your startup. The CPO collaborates with hiring managers, plans recruitment processes, and develops the candidate’s journey from first contact to the start of cooperation, successful adaptation, and beyond.

  • Employee training

The CPO researches, designs, and implements programs for employees’ learning and development. They identify gaps in the team’s expertise and training needs, develop learning initiatives, and create opportunities for employees to enhance their skills and capabilities. The CPO also supports performance management processes, providing guidance and feedback to drive individual and team growth. As a result, specialists in this role ensure employees’ promotion and career development.

  • Employee relations

The CPO creates a healthy, productive, supportive, and balanced work environment. They manage conflict resolution processes and facilitate effective communication.

In a nutshell, the CPO is involved in all team-related activities. They contribute to the employer brand and the company’s culture, and as a result, they take some tasks off your plate and save you time for business development-related activities.

Specialist’s profile: Katya Laviolette, Chief People Officer at 1Password

A board member of several businesses and a mentor, Katya Laviolette has over 25 years of experience in talent management. After working in multiple businesses in the manufacturing and media spheres, Katya switched to the IT industry. In the Leadership Perspectives video series, she associates the CPO’s work with putting together a puzzle:

“(Experiences are) puzzles in someone’s career and you (as a CPO) have this great foundation to figure out how to pick those pieces out that makes sense and apply them into an industry that you will actually help them benefit.”

– Katya Laviolette

 

  1. Chief Operating Officer (COO)

The chief operating officer may handle an immense volume of tasks and various responsibilities including strategic planning (quite often, the COO works together with the CEO to form the board of directors), planning day-to-day operations, developing policies, and managing the HR department.

The COO may be responsible for managing functional areas of a business: resource planning, production, logistics, and customer support.

Just as is the case with other C-suite positions, the tasks and responsibilities of a chief operating officer are diverse and may overlap with the responsibilities of other executives.

Specialist’s profile: Rebecca Simons, COO at Riverlane

Rebecca Simons, Chief Operating Officer at Riverlane, says that COO is “a curious role” that “can take many shapes and sizes, depending on the company’s operating model, lifecycle stage, and the wider industry.”

During her career at Riverlane, Rebecca as COO has been involved in multiple activities. She started with doing almost everything across the organization; later, she was involved mostly in hiring; now, Rebecca’s tasks are about connecting people across Riverlane, providing a unique view on the company’s operations, motivating the team, and contributing to the development of global strategies. “The role is infinitely changeable,” says Rebecca.

Other C-level roles in a modern organization

In this article, you’ve learned about the seven main C-suite positions needed for your product, team, and business growth. At the same time, there may be 17 roles in the C-suite (and counting).

The number, focus, and key expertise of specialists who work at C-level positions in your organization fully depend on the organization itself, your goals and priorities, market conditions, and strategic plans.

For the last five years, the average size of the executive board has been increasing. Founders are adding Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Digital Officers, Chief Strategy Officers, and other positions to delegate effectively, speed up business extension, and bring deep expertise and unique knowledge to the team. For example, Chief Learning Officers embark on implementing corporate “learnscapes” and ensure learning and development of C-suite executives.

new c-level positions

At the same time, C-board roles and responsibilities are vulnerable to changes in the local target market and global IT industry. With rapid development of AI technologies, CEOs and their teams should adapt, learn, and form a vision for what used to be a traditional C-board with well-defined responsibilities.

Roles you may need in your organization: three steps to the right decision

Now that you’re working on your own product, you may have to make multiple decisions, and some are related to hiring C-level specialists.

But do you really need to bring all 17 people on board the moment your product starts to gain traction? Let’s consider three main steps that would help you make this decision.

  1. Identify your needs

Hiring a C-board may seem absolutely essential for business growth. But is it really so?

Analyze your business and product needs. Do you need unique expertise, leadership, or both?

If you need an experienced software architect, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to find a CTO. If you need someone to drive marketing strategies, you don’t necessarily need a CMO.

Ten years ago, Canva’s founders hired Zach Kitschke for just one day — they wanted him to write a media release. By focusing on your product’s needs and understanding what exactly you need to get done, you can hire the right people and save your budget.

  1. Define your budget

C-suite executives may ask for equity in your startup; at the same time, they may ask for salaries.

According to Glassdoor, the average salary of a COO in the US exceeds $400,000 per year. This may be an obstacle on your way to a successful hire. Besides, C-suite executives’ salaries are a cost you might be able to avoid.

  1. Consider alternatives

All the C-level experts we’ve introduced in this article represent huge, well-established businesses. What should you know about hiring for these roles in small or midsize businesses or a startup?

Brett Fox says that “too many C-Level titles may hurt your chances of getting funded.”

Garrett Kelly gives us clear recommendations: “If you don't have at least 25-50 employees, don’t waste money on a COO.”

Indeed, hiring a C-level board may be expensive, meaningless, and even threatening for your small business.

Besides, if you don’t have enough tasks and responsibilities for a C-level professional, he or she may simply get bored and leave your organization in a couple of months.

Is there any chance to access deep expertise, leadership skills, and a great product vision without hiring a C-level executive? Instead of hiring an executive, you can choose a software development company and consider the CxO as a Service model — a fast, convenient, and cost-efficient way to bring particular expertise to your team.

You can access it using one of three options:

how to bring an execituve to a startup

  1. Hire a part-time executive

An on-demand, part-time CxO may help you drive the company’s growth, make decisions, and implement strategies while you only pay for hours of the CxO’s work on your product.

  1. Cooperate with fractional specialists

If you need advice on a certain topic, consider software development consulting and the role of a fractional, or interim, CxO. For example, it is common to hire a fractional CTO to decide on migration to new servers or a technology stack, or to hire a fractional CMO to develop a marketing strategy for promoting a new feature.

  1. Work with a project CxO

Working with a project CxO allows you to delegate the whole scope of tasks related to your project to the CxO.

With well-defined business needs and a budget to cater to them, you can choose the most convenient way to get C-level expertise on your team.

 

In conclusion

In modern organizations, there are multiple C-suite executives, each focusing on their own field of expertise and responsibilities. At the same time, these fields and responsibilities often overlap, which makes it difficult to define responsibilities you can assign to a certain C-level expert.

Besides, it all depends on the particular organization — its size, funding stage, industry, and overall market conditions.

As the CEO of your product, you may choose to hire a CTO, CMO, COO, CPO, or any number of other experts to your C-level team. However, at the project discovery phase and at early stages of your startup growth, it may be unnecessary to invest in recruitment and hiring of these professionals.

If you understand the precise needs of your product, business, and team, define the available budget, and consider alternatives to hiring a CxO, you can make the right decision on whether to hire a C-level executive to your team right now.

Need a chief technical expert on your team?
Consider a CTO as a Service model and choose the simplest way to bring technology expertise aboard.
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