When the Bank of England announced last week that Charlotte Hogg was to be its first chief operating officer, I felt a little bit of pleasure and quite a lot of revulsion.

Pleasure, because she’s a woman. I’ve just been making a radio programme about another woman whose arrival at the bank also caused a bit of a stir. She was Janet Hogarth, and I think she and Ms Hogg might have hit it off. Both are serious bluestockings with top degrees from Oxford and Harvard – the difference is in what they were hired to do.

Ms Hogg’s job is to order everyone around, while Ms Hogarth – hired in 1893 as the Bank’s first female clerk – had to sit on her bottom counting bank notes all day. Ms Hogg will earn almost £260,000; Ms Hogarth was only hired because she came cheap. The board minutes from 1893 talk of the “employment of female labour in certain duties for which female labour is especially fitted”, in order to cut costs or “effect an economy”.

So Ms Hogg stands for progress. What is not progress is the other aspect of the announcement, which everyone is either politely ignoring or is so inured to that their critical faculties have been blunted – the chief operating officer bit. That such a splendid institution, where the doormen still wear dusty pink tail coats, should have succumbed to the language of corporate America, is grim. It also symbolic: it marks the very end of a British, no-nonsense variety of management. Before last week there was precious little of it left, but after this the game is surely over.

It is particularly sad that the bank feels the need for a “chief operating officer” given that its existing system of titles is so admirably clear. There is a governor and a deputy governor – or rather, there are three deputy governors. Strictly speaking, this is two too many, although when you compare that to the hyperinflation at, say, Goldman Sachs – where there are many thousands of vice-presidents – the bank has been doing an admirable job safeguarding its titular currency.

The style of “chief X officer” is to be deplored because it’s too long, pompous and quite unnecessary. Until the mid-1950s there were no CEOs – heads in corporate America were all called president. This was better as one word is superior to three; and of the three, both the first and last are dodgy. “Chief” is horrid because it’s so self-important and “officer” is out of place. Companies need not ape the army or the police force. Their top employees don’t usually have an official role, and have no business borrowing the word.

But the owners of these titles don’t see it that way. By the mid-1970s all but a tiny handful of corporate presidents had renamed themselves CEO. The fad was not only unstoppable in the US, but was also spreading overseas. At first, British bosses stuck with the superior and more accurate title of “managing director”. But then they weakened and started calling themselves “chief executives”. That stuck for a few years, but now we’ve gone the whole hog and made CEOs of the lot of them. It’s the most dramatic example of sheeplike behaviour I can think of. I have looked, but can’t find a single big UK company that still calls its top person MD.

Once you’ve got a CEO, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to having a “chief financial officer” and a “chief operating officer” too. The COO is particularly horrible as it is not at all clear what the job is. And coo is what you do over a baby, which does not seem terribly well suited to what goes on at the Bank of England.

From CFO and COO, the floodgates open, and before you know it, you’ve got even more ludicrous chiefs floating about the place including chief learning officers, chief agility officers and even chief visionary officers. And then, because you have so many of them, you need a collective noun. Hence one of the most wretched phrases in the management lexicon: the “C-suite”.

In the past 10 years, this term has come from nothing to become something that even this newspaper has started using without the protection of inverted commas. There is no excuse for the phrase. A suite almost always suggests something we could do without. In a hotel, it means unreasonably expensive accommodation. An en suite bathroom is not one of life’s necessities and a three-piece suite never enhances a sitting room.

I would like to think the Bank of England would hold out against this final vulgarity. But I’m not at all confident, especially with a North American in charge. A bit of Googling assures me that the bank already has a “suite” of forecasting models. I forecast a C-suite will be along shortly.

lucy.kellaway@ft.com

Get alerts on Bank of England when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article