Too Many ‘Chiefs’ or Are Execs Simply Getting Their Due?

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-01-01-2022, Volume 42, Issue 1

Questions grow over adding titles to the biopharma C-suite.

Every day I receive emails citing the promotions of executives to new positions. It’s become a sort of alphabet soup—from CEO to CHRO to CQO. In fact, there are so many “chiefs” these days that some even have to share their acronyms—for example CMO can mean chief medical officer or chief marketing officer, and CDO can mean chief data officer or chief digital officer. It’s getting confusing.

In order to make sense of all these lofty titles, I reached out to Jeff Aldrich, owner and president of The Aldrich Group, an executive search and organizational development firm. Aldrich agrees that he has been noticing the wholesale “chiefing” of executive functions and the emergence of novel titles, especially in biopharma startups, and wider use of some titles in all sectors of the pharma industry.

On the development side of pharma, Aldrich has seen the title of chief clinical officer, which might report to the chief medical officer, more often.

On the commercial side, the chief commercial officer title is sometimes supplanting or co-opting the chief marketing officer title, especially at companies where business development (M&A) is a strong growth driver.

On the technology side, chief information officer is often being differentiated from but placed on a level with jobs such as chief technology officer and chief digital officer because companies see strategic value in having such distinct functions. For more on this, my colleague Julian Upton covered Defining the Chief Data Officer in our October issue.

The title of chief manufacturing officer is coming on strong, too, with chief quality officer equally popular. “I’ve been asked by clients to make the formal argument, supported by survey data, that the companies with the most well-developed quality cultures put the senior most quality job on equal or better organizational footing with the head of manufacturing,” says Aldrich. “Such companies not only want to send the right message about quality’s predominance throughout the ranks of the company itself, but their strategic intent is to send a strong message to regulatory governing bodies that are always looking for signs about quality’s relative organizational standing, that the function has clout.”

Though Aldrich has seen a gradual increase in C-level jobs in Big Pharma during the 25-plus years he’s been in the industry, he attributes the real proliferation to the rise of venture capital–backed, clinical-stage biopharma firms. “While big pharma bestowed C titles gradually and sometimes grudgingly, the emerging biotech industry pulled out the stops,” says Aldrich. “At startup biopharma firms, it’s not usual now for almost all corporate functions to be headed by ‘chiefs.’”

Ross Grossman, retired senior vice president of human resources for Regeneron (who refers to his past title now as chief human resources officer because he finds it most representative), still consults in early stage biotech planning for growth. While many companies have a rigorous process for granting a “chief” title, Grossman believes most of the newer titles come from companies giving in to pressure from candidates. “In many—if not most—cases, the role of the top human resources, technology, diversity, etc. leader did not change,” he says. “After years of companies attempting to reserve ‘chief’ for the CFO, more and more leaders in other disciplines wore them down and got the ‘chief’ title, and newly hired leaders demanded it in order to move over. I think the floodgate broke over the last few years, and ‘chief’ has now become standard for the top executive in more and more disciplines.”

Aldrich agrees that competition stoked the general trend to elevate vice president–level jobs to C level in the industry. As an executive recruiter, he sees the upward pressure on senior vice president or executive vice president titles, and on executive titling overall, as a recruitment and retention phenomenon—especially in biopharma. “The attraction of equity-based executive compensation with huge upside potential is a hard draw to the biopharma side of the street for the risk-amenable working on the big pharma side,” he says. “But the opportunity to be a ‘chief’ of their functional realm has recruiting appeal to self-confident and ambitious people, too.”

After dipping my toes into this topic, it seems there’s much to be said on this trend, and we’ll continue our conversation with industry experts to share those insights in an upcoming feature (scheduled for June) to address pharma’s “chief” concerns.

Elaine Quilici is a Senior Editor for Pharm Exec. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.