Anyone who uses LinkedIn as a business networking tool will be familiar with the thought process. You’ve found a potentially valuable contact, and you look at their current role, but what does their title mean? Founder, co-founder, president, chairman, CEO, director, managing partner… Both in large corporations and (especially) in smaller startups, the way people describe themselves can explain or obfuscate, depending on personal choice and context.
The one constant is that these things are rarely accidental. ‘Chief executive officer’ is prima facie a standard job description, and seems, in its initialised form, to have superseded simply ‘chief executive’; and you can infer from its use that the holder is, more or less, the head of the business. But you need to look further. Is there a chairman to whom the CEO is accountable? Is there a president, or a founder, or a major shareholder lurking in the background with considerable sway? Is he holding the post as part of an unofficial rotation with the rest of the c-suite? How much untrammelled power does the CEO actually have?
This is not a new semantic game. It was certainly understood by the ancients. We talk about Roman ‘emperors’, but it was more complicated than that. When Octavian monopolised power in Rome through the 20s BC he did so with semantic strategy. After the defeat of Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium, he chose the title Princeps, which we now generally (and loosely) translate as ‘emperor’, but it was much more nuanced than that. Augustus, as Octavian became, rejected the traditional titles of ‘king’ or ‘dictator’, fearing they would arouse suspicion or resentment. Instead, Princeps Civitatis, or ‘first citizen’, reassured the republican establishment that he was not hungry for absolute power, and harked back to the title of Princeps Senatus, the first senator in order of precedence who generally opened debates.
A master of display and concealment was Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. He is rarely described in history texts as the holder of one particular office, because he built his power base by accretions of influence and office. Unlike his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, who had been Lord Chancellor, Cromwell sidled to power. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer, then in 1534 became Principal Secretary, or Secretary of State. At various times in the 1530s he was Master of the Rolls and Lord Privy Seal, and he assumed the office of Lord Great Chamberlain months before his fall in 1540. It was never about the office, but about the man: he had the King’s ear, and that was all he needed.
So it continues today. Bill Gates is a “technical advisor” to Microsoft, but his name is synonymous with the brand (though this year he stepped down from the board to concentrate on his philanthropic activities). Jack Ma was, until recently, chairman of Alibaba, overseeing a CEO (latterly Daniel Zhang) and the Canadian J. Michael Evans as President, but Ma was the driving force behind the Chinese giant.
One must also factor in ownership. The business world is littered with ‘founders’ and ‘co-founders’. Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple, was until last year still on the company payroll, representing Apple at corporate functions and drawing a six-figure stipend, but his executive involvement ended as long ago as 1985, when he founded CL 9. “Woz” is still an Apple shareholder, but the driving seats have been occupied by others for decades.
The Austrian engineer Ferdinand Piëch was a master of this present but not there role. A grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, he was chairman of Volkswagen’s executive board from 1993 to 2002, when, according to company rules, he retired at the age of 65. In that position he had controlled not only the famous German car maker, but also Audi, SEAT and Škoda, as well as overseeing the purchase of Bentley and Lamborghini. Official retirement was little obstacle for the formidable Dr Piëch: he took up a seat on the supervisory board and was intimately involved in strategic decisions until finally resigning in 2015. His title hardly mattered: if you knew, you knew.
It is a complicated study of semiotics, and requires both knowledge and skill to decipher the leadership of enterprises. But there is also a lesson for those setting up their own companies or ascending the corporate ladder. If you can choose your title, what message do you wish to send to the outside world? What style of leadership do you want people to infer? And, perhaps just as importantly, what do you wish to conceal or downplay? Finally — don’t worry. You’re not going mad. Other people are thinking just as deeply about these things as you.