Meet the doctor
My interest in titles and the effect it has on the title-holder as well as the direct environment was triggered some years ago during a consultation with my physician. I introduced myself as “Jaco”, and she replied “please to meet you, I am doctor Bloos”, referring to her surname. I responded with “please to meet you too” and asked, “how are you called?.” She politely replied “Doctor Bloos.” She apparently operated in an environment where her role was defined by her title, which commanded respect, expertise and positioning of her patients. As I sat down, I asked with a bit of humour and some Dutch bluntness, “do you also have a name?.” That was the beginning of a great friendship as her defensive walls came tumbling down.
What’s in a name?
The title is a prefix or suffix to signify veneration, an official position or academic qualification. In the Western world, it has been used since the Roman times to indicate aristocratic, legislative, ecclesiastical, academic, military or to protect professions. The point is, nowadays titles mean different things to different people. They are used for positioning, to create distance, intimacy, recognition or as a feel-good factor, like driving a BMW 5 instead of a Ford Mondeo. The title is an omnipresent issue we get to deal with when we meet new people; when we introduce ourselves; when we are being introduced or apply for a new job. Not only WHO we are, but also HOW we are perceived and consequently how the relationship is defined and the type of behaviour, which fits that interaction. Your reaction to someone’s title says just as much about you, as it does about them. It makes a direct appeal to your frame of reference and preconceptions; about what’s at stake; what you can do for me; is me knowing who you are having any effect on my relative positioning to others etc. But there’s more to it. Titles act as keys. It unlocks loads of information, which simultaneously leads to judgement calls and new questions. People can weight the same titles differently. For example, two CEO’s sit at a table, but they aren’t equal. It depends on the size of their companies, where the head office is situated, the number of offices and employees, the turnover, etc. Would you rather sit at the dinner table of the CEO of an SME or a large corporate? Titles are important, but they aren’t always what they seem to be. As a matter of fact, they aren’t even what they used to be. When I grew up, I used to go to the local Post Bank with my father. There was a cashier, banker and an office director. Pretty clear. But its much more complicated these days. If you go to the bank, your are more than likely to run into the CEO, the General Manager, the Chief Risk Officer, the Chief Human Resources Officer, the European CEO, the Country Director, the Vice President, the Senior Vice President, and the Executive Vice President. There are multiple titles and many are blown out of proportion.
We live in a time with jobs, roles and responsibilities which were unimaginable even ten years ago. Titles have also grown, bigger and bolder. Edward Kiledjian wrote an article on this subject in 2015 called “The era of title inflation is upon us”. He argues that a job title should be a realistic reflection of your position. In essence, he used inflation as example to explain what happen to blown up titles. With inflation, the price increase simultaneously with a fall in the purchasing value of money. That happens too when companies start using titles as compensation to make employees feel important, to get them on board, to compensate for a salary rise or bonus which is just not coming. The titles make them look bigger and more important than they are. Titles have become bigger, bolder, more creative, and maybe, just maybe, actual roles and responsibilities have become narrower. They are being used for more than just positions, roles and responsibilities, but also as compensation to hire talents who would normally not sign on for the money. I have been involved in a Global Services company who hired mid-level managers on senior level titles to compensate for the lack of market conform compensation. They eventually ran into trouble because the very same managers couldn’t make the benchmark with their peers and did not have enough content and experience to compete. Kiledjian concludes rightly that free money has a short-term positive effect and that goes for free titles too. As many others get the same titles, the title starts to devalue with even worst effects as they (and others) start to realise the title’s true value. Title Inflation is an inadequate mechanism for monetary compensation.
To create a bit of context, the next significant movement is not title inflation, but what I would call “Title Liberation.” I am excited by some companies who are breaking away from the traditional inflated job titles to introduce new funky, trendy, playful titles, which often radiates energy and inspiration. Some companies are ditching traditional titles, which are backwards-looking and only focus on abilities and capabilities. They are creating new forward-looking titles which say something about inspiration, expectation and promise. Doesn’t it sound liberating to become the Chief Inspiration Officer, the Genius Technician, Chief Right-Hand officer (COO), Chocolate Explorer (Business development Manager), Chief Dreamer, or Chief People Officer? I often wonder as a thought experiment what employees would make of the titles of their board of directors if they would have the ability to change it.
Do the title challenge exercise
So let’s assume you want to improve your already great job title or maybe change a traditional, boring, inflated or devalued title. And let us say you have the once in a lifetime opportunity to create your own title or to personalize it to your own taste. Take a few minutes and think about what your current title says about you, and what not. How big is the gap between your title and the reality on the ground? In fact, how big is the gap between your title and the reality in your mind? Does it enable or disable you to be who you are or want to be at your company? And here comes the challenge: once you have determined the gap, see if you can change or personalize your title into something that really reflects who you are or who you would like to be. And for those who always want to take it a step further, imagine the possibility to change the title on your bosses’ business card, or your executive or non-executive board. Unleash your creative mind and lets see what titles changes you can come up with that could possibly redefine current and future job descriptions.
As always happy to receive your feedback.