Where Have All the CQOs Gone?

The search for today’s quality leaders

by Greg Hutchins

During the summer, I got a call from an acquaintance who said his position had been eliminated. He is the chief quality officer (CQO) of a major company. He’s getting a great severance package, but it was still unexpected and unnerving.

Two other CQOs I know have lost their jobs in the last six months. It’s a sad shame for these professionals—CQOs are endangered officers. What does it say about our profession? And how can we change this pattern?

Rise of the CQO

I’ve been in and around quality for more than 25 years. When I first started, most organizations didn’t have a quality department. Then, during the explosive growth of quality between 1980 and 2000, the quality function grew in importance to become a critical C-level function.

Quality evolved from being a technical position to first and second-level manager and then to director level. Many companies had quality vice presidents and some even developed a CQO position—the profession’s top spot.

It was an exciting and lucrative time to be a quality consultant professional. Quality professionals were at the forefront of national and organizational competitiveness, and they, along with consultants, were in huge demand to stabilize and improve internal and supplier processes using lean and other common quality tools.

Critical question

Times have changed. Where have all the CQOs gone, and why isn’t quality at the C-level table anymore? These are great—though troubling—questions at the core of the future of quality and the employability and promoteability of quality professionals.

Here’s my take:

"Quality is everyone’s job." This was Philip Crosby’s tag line. Years ago, quality was diffused throughout an organization and into the supply chain. Then, it was moved offshore with the huge outsourcing movement seen during the last 10 years. We, the quality evangelists, were more successful than we anticipated. Quality did become everyone’s job, not only in our companies, but also with our supplier bases.

What happens to quality professionals when everyone is responsible for quality? The standardization and commodization of quality seem to have resulted. Quality lost its cachet.

In this journey, something else happened. Quality defined as being good enough became the business requirement as opposed to continuous improvement. Companies said they didn’t need a CQO to enhance competitiveness. The person in charge of ISO registrations or product certifications could be a director or even a second-level manager.

Where are today’s leaders?

I’d like to see the new faces who are rushing to write articles, keynote events, become  spokespeople and, in general, lead our profession into the new era. I’m still waiting to see and hear these people.

Do you know someone who fits this description? Is it you? Are you doing something great in a hot area that is a natural extension of quality, such as risk management, healthcare quality, cyber security or supply chain management?

If you are, great! Get published in QP. Give talks. Write books. Lead a movement. This is what we need to do to get more CQOs back into the workforce. 

Greg Hutchins is the principal engineer with Quality Plus Engineering, a critical infrastructure protection firm headquartered in Portland, OR. He is a member of ASQ.

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