Title Sways Perception

Author:

Anissa Starnes, IOM, YGM Chief Impact Officer

Choosing the perfect title for the leader of your chamber is a daunting task. If I had $100 for every time someone asked me my option on the perfect title, I would be lounging on a beach somewhere enjoying my retirement.

When it comes to chamber executive leadership titles, there are two fairly standard options – President and CEO or Executive Director. Both have their advantages and drawbacks, as you would expect. 

Title: President and CEO

As a general rule, the President and CEO title has been used in major or metro chambers to mirror the larger organizations in their areas. Just as the President/CEO of those larger businesses are the top executive in charge of all organizational decisions, so in those chambers. 

This title is often seen as more prestigious and associated with larger salaries, staffs, and decision-making authority. 

Smaller chambers may see this title as too formal or too “big” for them. The President and CEO title is used most often in conjunction with for-profit entities and large non-profits. 

Title: Executive Director

The Executive Director title is typically used for smaller chambers such as emerging or hometown chambers where the director fulfills many of the same responsibilities as a CEO but on a much smaller scale. This title is often considered more approachable and down-to-earth and may be better for organizations that have a much smaller program of work that tends to be more community focused versus business focused. 

The ‘Executive Director’ title is more frequently used for traditional 501c3 non-profits.

Factors for Consideration

When debating which title to use for your top executive, you’ll need to consider several important factors.

What is the size and complexity of your organization?

Smaller organizations may not require the formal structure of a President and CEO. Larger organizations, however, may need the authority and decision-making power associated with that title. 

How involved is your Board of Directors?

Organizations with Executive Directors tend to lean a little more on their Board for operations input than organizations with a President and CEO. In most cases, organizations with a President and CEO use their boards more for governance in accordance with the laws and governing documents. 

Board members should be directing efforts to advance the mission and strategic goals and setting the vision for the organization, not becoming involved with staff issues (outside of the lead executive) or the business of day-to-day operations.

How many employees does your organization have?

You may be the only employee in a smaller chamber and feel as if the President and CEO title doesn’t make sense. The Executive Director title might fit better in that instance.

What does your organization prioritize?

If your organization prioritizes community programming such as festivals, parades, and social events, then the more informal title of Executive Director might be best. If your organization prioritizes business programming such as workforce development, governmental affairs, and business growth, then the more business-forward President and CEO might work better.

The Importance of Clarity

Whatever title is chosen needs to be able to clearly convey to your stakeholders what the top executive’s role and responsibilities are. Clarity of vision is the most important consideration of all.

Flexibility

As with everything in chamber life, these titles can and should be flexible. Chambers can choose to use one of these two titles or to create one of their own, depending on what best fits their needs and community culture. The title can also be adjusted as the organization changes and grows. As long as the title accurately reflects the leader’s role and is clear to stakeholders, it can be flexible and adaptable. 

If you are the lead staff member, it is more than okay to bring this item up for discussion. Often, the title is what it is because it has always been that way. I’ve seen countless chamber professionals attend the Institute for Organization Management (IOM), go back to their community and raise the question of titles to their boards, and make an immediate change from Executive Director to President and CEO.

Anissa Answers

What do I think? I’m glad you asked. I think chambers should assess their unique situation to make that determination. Answer the questions I’ve posed above, and you’ll have your answer. 

Still want me to answer? There are those who see the Executive Director title as less professional or less prestigious than President and CEO. While I don’t see it as such, I do often recommend chambers making the switch from using Executive Director to President and CEO. You are the executive running the largest business organization in your community and running it as a business, regardless of the size. You should be seen as a peer with other business leaders, so my vote will always be with President and CEO, if only to position you with your peers. 

Sometime titles don’t matter, but sometimes they do.

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