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10 most valuable corporate jobs

(MoneyWatch) There was a time when the world's most brilliant minds thought our planet was the center of the universe. Until Copernicus debunked the Ptolemaic or geocentric model, the idea that the sun and all the stars in the heavens revolved around Earth stood for over 1,500 years.

Self-importance is human nature, and with good reason. Without it, nobody would survive childhood. If our tiny baby brains didn't demand that the world revolve around us, that every time we burp or gurgle any adult in earshot should be compelled to hold and care for us, we wouldn't make it past a few months.

That said, by realizing we're not the center of anything and that, in fact, nothing revolves around us except a completely lifeless moon that's so unremarkable we never even gave it a name, the human race has effectively grown up just as each of us does as we develop into mature adults. 

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At least, that's the theory. As we all know, there are plenty of exceptions. While everyone goes through the same stages of human development, some of us get stuck in one stage or another on the way to adulthood. We look just like ordinary adults, but we actually behave a lot more like self-important children with planet-sized egos.

If you work for a living, you probably know plenty of people who, like Ptolemy, think the world revolves around them. These pseudo-adults think their job is the most important function in the company. To make matters worse, even relatively normal people, for lack of a better term, may have a skewed perspective of how important their jobs are.

To clarify things for everyone, here's my list of the top 10 job functions that are most valuable to a typical corporation and that should command the big bucks (in descending order of importance).

1. Chief executive officer. These days it's popular to dump on C-level executives as overpaid, overhyped, greedy capitalist types that fly around in corporate jets and make just as much money when they screw up and get fired as they do when they're actually getting the job done. That may be true, but CEOs are still the most important people in the company. The buck stops there.

2. Senior executive. Contrary to what most people think, those who report directly to the CEO generally have direct responsibility for running their respective functions of the company. Nevertheless, there's still a pecking order among senior executives. Since the chief financial officer also signs SEC documents, meaning she may very well join her boss in prison in the case of accounting fraud, the CFO is pretty much next in line, right up there with the chief operating officer or president, if they exist.

3. General manager. If you run a business line and have profit and loss, or P&L, responsibility, that not only puts you right up there with members of the executive management team, you're actually more important than those who run administrative functions, such as human resources and information technology.

4. Product manager. I know a lot of you think engineers are responsible for inventing great products that beat the competition. They're not. As venture capitalist and former Intel exec Bill Davidow wrote in his seminal book "Marketing High Technology," "Marketing must invent complete products and drive them to commanding positions in defensible market segments." Product marketers rarely get the credit they deserve.

5. Product development. No matter how good marketing is, you can't have innovative products without innovative product development people. You don't need a management title to be looked upon with awe if you're a top product designer. And yes, that idyllic perception is usually deserved.

6. Sales. Sales is responsible for winning and keeping customers, which Mark H. McCormack said is the primary function of every company in "What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School." So it is written and so it is true. Not to mention that sales is responsible for revenue generation, which is also sort of hard to do without. That's why salespeople make the big bucks.

7. Consultant. In business-to-business service-oriented companies like IBM and Oracle, consultants work directly with customers on a broad range of functions from integrating and customizing technical products to solving critical strategic or management problems. In those types of companies, consultants are responsible for successful customer outcomes, which is where the rubber meets the road.

8. Customer service. Although they're typically part of the sales organization, I wanted to specifically call out customer service. Anyone who works in direct contact with customers helping them resolve issues is on the hook for whether customers walk away satisfied and become repeat customers or not. The fact that they tend to be relatively low-paying jobs says something about corporate priorities, does it not?

9. Anyone who innovates. Regardless of where you work in an organization -- operations, manufacturing, public relations, human resources, information technology, wherever -- if you innovate, you're valuable. That can mean anything from coming up with an idea that improves productivity to helping the company save money. In a hypercompetitive global market, companies that empower employees and encourage them to make a difference will outperform the pack.

10. Controller. Most people have no idea what controllers do. In general, they're the highest ranking accounting professional for a product line, region, division or the entire company. That means they're responsible for budgeting, auditing, reporting and financial performance. It's a really big deal.

So the next time you come across a self-important jerk who thinks the company revolves around him or a power-hungry bureaucrat who tries to make your life miserable, just smile and remember they're just overcompensating for how small they really feel.

Image courtesy of CCS-Inc

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