WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?
The turmoil at British Aerospace has many causes and one bizarre footnote: job titles. Roland Smith, who was forced to resign on September 25th, was known to be a Professor and Sir, but also described himself as a "non-executive" chairman. But he was clearly running the company – ie, acting like an "executive" – and got 300,000 pounds a year, plus the boot when things went adrift. Job titles matter, nowhere more then at the top of a big company. Maybe that is why there is such confusion, and obfuscation, about what top managers call themselves. A short guide through the maze:
Chairman. If he is (i) American and/or (ii) of the "executive" variety, he is the boss. Non-executive chairman are rare in America, but popular almost everywhere else. Their speciality is attending board meetings, and supervising the real boss (see below). Many big companies in continental Europe have two chairmen, because they have two boards. One is the supervisory board, which includes outsiders and workers, and oversees the management board, which actually runs the company. In Japan chairmen are most renowned for their golf skills.
Vice-chairman or deputy chairman. A title which can mean almost anything from heir to the throne to a former heir headed for retirement.
President. In Japan he is the boss, and sometimes the chairman’s son-in-law. In America he is often number two, unless the chairman also wants to be called president. Sometimes the president is the chairman-elect. Sometimes he is being side-stepped. In Britain the title is virtually unknown.
Chief executive officer (CEO). In America always the boss. That is why the chairman is often also the CEO. In theory, he is held in check by the board’s non-executive directors. In practice, many of these are CEOs of other companies and may also be friends of the chairman, so they are loth to upset the applecart.
Chief operating officer (COO). This is also used mostly in America, where the COO (often the president) runs the company on a "day-to-day" basis and reports to the CEO. Some big British companies have recently begun adopting the title. On September 26th ICI appointed a COO for the first time, following BP and (on September 18th) Grand Metropolitan.
Managing director. In Britain this is usually a synonym for CEO – in other words the boss. In Japan there is either the "managing director with special responsibilities" (roughly equivalent to CEO) or "managing director with usual responsibilities" (COO). Some Japanese firms have several managing directors. It would be nice if all these names followed a simple, international standard. How about number one, two, three...