I recently caught up with an old colleague who’s in the process of making a career change. When she walked me through the various opportunities in front of her, one of them seemed like the obvious choice. A unique role that would give her the chance to try new things, grow her network, and work in a space that would be really challenging. When she told me which one she was leaning towards I asked her why she felt pulled in that direction. Her reply came quick, “Because they are going to give me a more senior title.”
This startled me a little bit because I have always felt that a title is not really a decision making criteria. If you are in the right role, at the right time, with the right people, those things take care of themselves. This led us down a path where we talked more about the real value of a title (versus its perceived value).
For anyone who is struggling to take on a new role because they are worried about their title, here are some arguments for why you should care less.
Titles are not transferrable.
The value and meaning of titles changes between companies (especially when you are comparing roles at startups to those at large companies). For example, an executive vice president at a startup might be a really solid senior director at a Fortune 50 company. A general manager at one company is really a director at another. Interviewing people throughout my career I pay far more attention to the projects they worked on, what they personally accomplished, what their team accomplished, and who they worked with. Those elements mean far more to me than whatever title they had at a previous job. Generally speaking, the values and what you learned in your old role are transferrable; your title is not.
The head of what exactly?
“Head of” titles have always been a bit of funny to me. In fact, I would say it is actually a little suspicious. Calling someone the head of something alludes to a position of significant prominence. The buck stops with them and nobody else is in charge of that area. When you start to get into the specifics of what they are responsible for, what they're head of, they start to back pedal. If anything, it is starting to feel like one of those titles that people apply to whatever they are working on, as way to puff up the resume. Unless you are really the head of an organization, business, or discipline, I will always be wary of this title.
Titles serve as a weak form of currency.
I’ve seen management use titles as a way to make someone happy. Their pay doesn’t change, their projects don’t change, their responsibilities don’t change but they have a new title in their signature. Titles are easy to give to people. Promotions and pay increases are much harder. Be cautious of what a new title means if it is not accompanied by any additional value.
Know what really motivates you.
If you are putting title as your number one focus for taking on a new job, I challenge you to consider whether that is really the most important driver. I don’t think it’s a title that you are looking for. I believe that working on a project that inspires you, working with amazing people that encourage and challenge you, and working for a company that is the manifestation of your own values is probably as important as what your title is. Don’t focus so much on title that is blinds you from seeing other areas of value.
The sky is the limit, until the limit is the sky.
For people that I mentor I often talk about the “career funnel,” which is essentially a view into where you are at with your career. If you take an objective look at where you sit in the organization, are you actually right where you should be? Many people won’t become the CEO of their company. They might be a really talented marketer, but there is probably only going to be one CMO. They could be a rock star, but their company may not have a lot of general manager roles, and when they do open the books they generally promote people with 20 years of experience. What does this all mean? Don’t focus too much, too fast, or too soon on your title. Once you get to where you want to be, you could be in that role for a while. Give yourself the patience to enjoy that journey (versus trying to rush to a new title that may not be realistic or attainable). If we are fortunate we will all have long and successful careers. Focus on what you do (and how you do it) and things like title will work themselves out.