Bureaucracy, eh?
January 24, 2010 6:16 PM   Subscribe

What do CEOs, VPs and Directors actually do? Is there a tangible product of their labour?

I'm a student and trying to get my head around the world of work. I've read this question regarding corporate hierarchies and the difference between CEO, VP, director, manager, and a coordinator. However, I'm still at a loss as to what the CEO, VP, and directors actually do generally speaking other than manage those under them. Is it simply a matter of managers providing work summaries to directors and then directors providing summaries of their managers summaries to the VPs and then the VPs providing summaries to the CEO?...And then feedback and advice/direction is provided back down the chain of command?
posted by waterandrock to Work & Money (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm still at a loss as to what the CEO, VP, and directors actually do generally speaking other than manage those under them

There isn't really a single answer for this, as companies are different sizes and operate in different industries.

The differences between these titles at, say, Microsoft are vastly different than those at say a small regional car dealership.

Similarly, the function of these roles in, say, the petrochemical industry are vastly different than those in an industry such as, say, private equity.
posted by dfriedman at 6:25 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

C-Level (CEO, COO, CFO, etc.), VPs and Directors are responsible for making sure, no matter what, that the company is profitable. That means picking/adjusting a strategy, and making sure the company follows that strategy to the letter. They're also, ultimately, responsible for making sure the department underneath them does their jobs.

How this plays out in specific duties depends on the culture of the company in question. There's not a list of duties when you're at that level, you're just pretty much expected to eat, live, and breath the company to make sure it survives.
posted by alan at 6:27 PM on January 24, 2010

Response by poster: True, so what would the work look like a software company, a government agency, or a financial services firm for example?

I'm taking a management class and trying to get my head around being able to describe the roles and functions of these different positions without the luxury of doing in-depth research into a particular industry.
posted by waterandrock at 6:29 PM on January 24, 2010

Strategy and coordination of the company as a whole. Think of them as a necessary business function but otherwise a loss-centre.
posted by polyglot at 6:31 PM on January 24, 2010

Response by poster: Strategy and coordination of the company as a whole.

I assume that this is for the CEO, but what would the VP and Director do then? Strategy and coordination for the department and then unit respectively?
posted by waterandrock at 6:35 PM on January 24, 2010

Perhaps a military analogy would help?

A General doesn't carry a gun, he tells those that do carry guns where to go and at what time. At the various levels of hierarchy going down, people do more implementing (shooting if you will) and less resource allocating and planning, till you get to the squad, the privates and seargeants and those likely to shoot and get shot. Who will tell you that they're the only people who do any real work in the army. Which is true in a sense, but is more fundamentally irrelevant, because they wouldn't know what work to do without the officers.
posted by wilful at 6:41 PM on January 24, 2010

You need to reframe your thinking about 'titles'. It's not about the titles, it is about the hierarchy or structure of the organization. The bank I work for has Assistant VP's, VP's, Senior VP's, and Executive VP's. Another bank may do it differently. Some orgs are structured by functions, some by products, and some by projects. It all depends on the type of business and the structure that has been decided upon by........the c-levels and those that came before them.

I will say this, when you get to that level, a lot of the 'work' involves managing relationships with and amongst internal and external stakeholders. This is where politics and power come into play and it is not an easy task. Direct output? An email that sets the course of a project, product, division, or entire company.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:49 PM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Be careful with the term "director." A director can be a member of the Board of Directors or a title given to mid- to senior-level manager.

Anyway, CEOs manage people, relationships with major customers/vendors and make strategic decisions (acquisitions/divestitures, major capital investments, etc).

For example, here are a few examples of what a major investment bank CEO (like, say, Jamie Dimon) might do on a daily basis:
- Visit major shareholders (like, say, Fidelity or a Saudi prince) and explain why the company is losing money, or if it's making money, how it will make more. The CFO and people in Investor Relations will do most of this, but the major shareholders will demand to see the CEO.
- Deciding whether or not to move forward on a major acquisition and on what terms (think: buying Washington Mutual or participating in the bailout of Bear Stearns). Then convincing the risk-averse board of directors to vote for it.
- Deciding if your all-star energy trader should get the $100M bonus as dictated by the formula in their employment contract, or if the bank should renege for political reasons and likely lose a profitable trader and their team.
- Deciding who should run your investment banking division--the all star M&A banker or the all-star bond trader. They are both brilliant, both hate each other and both have huge legions of supporters.
- Pick a few CEOs to visit out of the dozens of requests you get from bankers who want the bank CEO to visit their potential clients. You can't visit them all, but every client wants to think they're important enough to warrant a visit from the bank CEO.

etc, etc.

It's a hard job.
posted by mullacc at 6:56 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've often wondered this myself, and have recently been tasked with working closely with a senior VP and several senior directors. So, I can give you an account of how it's worked in my industry with a somewhat outsider's eye.

The CEO is the public face of the company and, as such, is in very high demand. The bulk of their time is traveling. This includes attending every high-level meeting, which are often in various locations around the country (or even international). Basically, board meetings, committee meetings, meetings with other people in the industry, or very important clients. Include in that others. Many companies, for example, have workforce departments, so the CEO is often tasked with giving keynote speeches at college fairs, or at workforce-oriented workshops. Add to that their intrinsic value in the company itself (say, attending staff-level meetings to keep abreast of day-to-day developments in the industry), and that adds up to a lot of time.

The VPs (especially those of senior level) are therefore tasked with the everyday running of the company. Think, say, signing expense reports, reading over contracts, meeting with attorneys, making hiring decisions, drafting strategy memos, while, at the same time, signing off on sales presentations, coordinating staff meetings, scheduling industry meetings, keeping the staff accountable, and chairing various staff level meetings. Staff performance evaluations take up the first two months of the year.

Senior directors are even more involved in day-to-day tasks. They directly oversee the lower staff, keep their "underlings" on task, take all the phone calls that the VPs don't want to take, coordinate projects. Often they take to the ground and do these low-level tasks themselves.

Now, that's at least how it works in my industry. Your mileage may, of course, vary.
posted by General Malaise at 6:59 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Management is a force for two things: First, leadership. Second, accountability.

In terms of leadership, large numbers of people pulling in the same direction can execute far more than a roiling mass without a common goal.

In terms of accountability, policies and even social mores mean little if there aren't consequences for performing badly (and rewards for performing well). Part of the direct output of management is to design appropriate incentives to get groups to work together.

As companies grow, social strictures stop being automatic, and start needing to be carefully managed. So another part of the output is the company culture they choose to nurture, or destroy.
posted by effugas at 7:00 PM on January 24, 2010

On a side note, there's also the firefighter role, in which being management means when your direct reports screw up -- and they will -- it's your butt on a plane to think quick and apologize profusely. This can be a way more than full time job.
posted by effugas at 7:01 PM on January 24, 2010

Best answer: I work for the province of Ontario (Canada) so I can give you an idea of how the hierarchy works in a government agency.

Basically, the ruling party decides the direction for the province in the throne speech. Each government minister has to implement that direction as is relevant to his/her ministry. The minister is the one making speeches and public appearances, AND takes the fall if something screws up (compared to the states where individual public servants can get called out - e.g. Alan Greenspan). The deputy minister provides advice to the minister, provided by the assistant deputy minister(s) or ADM. (Typically there are more than one in any given ministry.) A ministry is typically divided into divisions, e.g. policy, operations, corporate services. Each division is overseen by the ADM. Each division has branches, which are led by directors. Each branch may have one or more office in it, lead by managers, who oversee a bunch of staff (like me). Direction on what things to do typically comes from the ADM level or higher. It gets fed down through the director and manager and staff work on it. We put together the information, and it goes back up for approval and to ensure that it fits into the vision and direction of the ministry. As staff, we don't and can't know all the projects that are going in our branch, the division and the ministry. That is the job of the managers, directors, and ADMs. The deputy minister would have an idea of what's going on in the ministry as a whole and feed this information to the minister, who takes this information with him/her to the legislature for question period, and to answer questions from media, etc. etc.

So to answer your question, yes, but it's like that for the purposes of decision-making and ensuring the vision of the organization is met. While managers, directors, ADMs and the deputy minister don't write or create information (that's what staff do), they are always making decisions based on the information provided by staff and outside the ministry, providing suggestions, connecting ideas and information and giving direction down the line. The higher you go in the hierarchy, the more of a global view you have in the organization, which is the basis for decision-making. We may not always know why a certain decision was made, but we still have to follow that direction. Hope that helps!
posted by foxjacket at 7:07 PM on January 24, 2010

this article answers at least a part of your question very well.
posted by smoke at 8:15 PM on January 24, 2010

They make decisions. It's that simple. Then they get held accountable for them.

However, the larger an organisation is, the more difficult those decisions are. Inevitably, the decision-makers are at least one step removed from the coalface, and rarely get an option that is so perfect as to be the right one.

Failure, as they say, tends to be an orphan and success has many fathers. At the very top, CEO level, forcing important change (i.e. what you've decided) needs strong convincing, motivational and networking skills. It's not enough to be right - you're judged solely on the outcome of your decisions.

Misjudge your customers, competitor, the economy, your finances, your employees and it all comes crashing down.

Of course, there are lots of VPs etc who don't make meaningful decisions. They are rebadged middle managers. But a director with the power to enact meaningful change is a potent thing - and the boldest decisions often don't have much meaningful data to support whether they are going to be a success or not.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:46 AM on January 25, 2010

The way I've come to understand it is that the higher you go up in an organization the less well-defined the job duties.

For the people at the bottom, daily tasks are laid out clearly and rules are well defined; you have lots of guidance as to how to do your job and what is expected of you. As long as you follow the routine your job won't change much and you don't have much to lose. You don't have significant decisions to make, and the consequences of mistakes are minor in the grand scheme of things. You probably work with things, not with people, and if you do work with people a manager is always nearby to take over in case of emergency. Think low: assembly line worker, fast food restaurant person, cashier.

At the top of the organization you have the much less clearly defined goals and directions—instead of being told exactly what to do, the CEO has to make stuff up out of thin air, using his head. They have no daily routine; they have to decide what's important and pursue it. They have to do the defining, the rule-making, and hold people below them accountable (have you ever had to fire somebody?). They cannot slack off because the people below them depend on them for leadership, and if you've worked for a bad boss you know what I mean. Being a good CEO is not easy because it requires extreme self-regulation, critical thinking, flexibility, creativity, calculating big risks and making hard decisions.

It's a lot easier to work within a well-defined system than to forge a path for yourself and others in a complicated, demanding world.

(Some managers or CEOs don't fit the above, and should probably not be in the position that they hold)
posted by msittig at 8:48 AM on January 25, 2010

Response by poster: I think I've got a good handle on what a CEO does - definitely better than I did before. But, my grasp of CEO responsibilities, as well as the responsibilities of a manager, was/is a bit better than what a VP or director does. Any thoughts on, ways to abstract, the general functions of those positions vs. CEO and managers?
posted by waterandrock at 9:21 AM on January 25, 2010

Directors manage managers and VPs manage directors.
posted by smackfu at 10:31 AM on January 25, 2010

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