Lean In

Making the Modern Female Executive

How rethinking chief-officer titles can land more broads in the boardroom

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When Yahoo appointed Marissa Mayer its new CEO, I think I actually slow-clapped. I mean, it’s about damn time a woman take top executive honors.

Right now, we need more women in the boardroom for no other reason than corporate finance being an inherently and unnecessarily masculine world. Even the very language of corporate executive titles is made for men, like Chief Executive Officer. Chief and Officer are both titles borrowed from the military, and imply that power is earned by dominance, that strategies are based on expansion of allies or containment of an enemy. What if we focused on the second word in this title? The role of today’s corporate executives can simply be to execute—make things happen. Women make things happen.

Right now, women make up only 4.7 percent of the Fortune 1,000 list. Not the Fortune 100, you guys—one thousand. That’s 47 women. In fact there’s probably a B-school class memorizing the names of every one of those ladies for an upcoming quiz. And sure, women like Mayer, Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi, and one-time California gubernatorial candidate now Hewlitt-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, are clear examples of women in absolute power.

I’m sure all of us could stand to memorize these names, but that would be beside the point. If you can count ’em, you can discount them. I want us to be able to rattle off female business leaders as fast as, or faster than, we can name supermodels. I want there to be so many female chief officers we couldn’t possibly name them all.

Sheryl Sandberg, herself the COO of Facebook, recently wrote about how to penetrate the boardroom in her memoir, Lean In. The traditional message for women climbing the career ladder has been that we could break the glass ceiling if we weren’t so busy fetching coffee. Sandberg adds that instead of asking for the tools or entry to those rooms, we wait for mentors to let us in.

Those titles we’re waiting for are a bit of a technicality. For women, ambition can be challenged by the frustration of our need to be validated by sitting in the traditional Herman Miller executive recliner. But if it’s a chief-officer position you want, there are plenty of other C-words for the taking.

You could be CFO (Finance) and touch every dollar bill that goes through a company. You can code your way into the CTO (Tech) role, or operationally run the whole company as COO (Operations), as Sandberg does. You know what else you can do?  Make. It. Up.

For an ostensibly sophisticated group of managers, the guys running the business world have come up with a surprisingly simplistic conceit for coming up with titles: Chief ____ Officer.

Get this: You can fill that blank with any word you want. One bank has even launched an ad campaign around this idea. Currently, there is a dude calling himself the Chief Knowledge Officer. While I’m sure knowing what to do is important to the direction of a growing company, this title means the CKO has merely to engender knowledge. That can mean anything.

These roles can seem counterintuitive at the onset. Dupont, a manufacturer of unsustainable plastics and refrigerants, has a Chief Sustainability Officer. She’s a woman, no less! (As a tangential aside, Dupont’s CEO? Also a woman!) It’s in a corporation’s best interest to solve the problems it creates. That sounds like a woman’s logic to me.

Philip Morris could appoint a Chief Lung Health Officer, or CoverGirl could appoint a Chief Manscaping Officer. In fact—screw it—what about Chief Female Officer for any corporation with a majority male executive board? Your role could be solely to assure that women infiltrate the status quo.

At the end of the day, titles in corporate governance matter only insofar as they represent power. With that, I’d note that power can be afforded in other classes of C-words. It’d be great if more of us got out of the lowercase c-suite (clerks, cashiers), but it’s perfectly fine to meet somewhere in the middle with “Chef” or “Creative Director” on your business card.

Lastly, know the difference between governance and compensation. Executive roles in startups (as opposed to multinational corporations), for example, represent an investment rather than a reward. A million dollars in the future is just make-believe money in the present. The joy of running a startup is in having a founder’s stake in something you really love, which can be an abstract form of value.

Don’t confuse that with the most important C-word in this whole game: cash. If you examine the Fortune 1,000 list by pay grade instead of gender, you’ll find that power is relative. Mayer did in fact do a great job in negotiating her compensation package. But Yahoo is an also-ran search engine. Sheryl Sandberg, who makes less in salary and has a functionally “lesser” title, monetarily surpassed Mayer by boatloads, by dint of being heavily vested in Facebook stock.

Regardless of the word in the middle, what these chieftans understand—and what ultimately gets us into the boardroom—is value. And who doesn’t understand the V-word like a woman?

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