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Why titles aren't useful

Which person would be the most senior among these three titles: "Account Executive", "Partner Lead", or "Global Business Manager"?

How about between the "Head of Marketing", "VP Marketing", or "Chief Marketing Officer"?

The answer in both cases is: there's no real way of knowing.

(Truth be told, the first set of titles all referred to the exact same role at one of my former employers.)

Titles used to be simple. They effectively communicated both the role the person performed within the company and their relative place in the hierarchy. An "Assistant Brand Manager" assisted the "Brand Manager", and both individuals were clearly less senior than the Vice-President of Brand. And because it was generally well-known within an industry what level of responsibility went along with each title, hiring someone from another company meant you knew roughly what to expect when that person arrived at your own organization.

That's often not the case anymore.

These days, when you see a "Director" role, you can't just assume what level of responsibility you can expect... because there might also be a Senior Director, reporting to an Associate Director, who reports to a Junior Vice-President. A Director used to be one or two levels away from the President's office. These days it can be four or five.

The problem with this title inflation is that it ends up defeating one of the main reasons for having a title at all. A Director within one company (or industry, or even size of organization) isn't necessarily equal to a Director within another, which makes comparing candidates more difficult for HR departments and hiring managers. If your title masks what you actually do and what responsibilities you actually have within your organization, then what purpose does having that title serve?

If you're a traditional, conservative organization, go ahead and use traditional, conservative titles. But keep it simple; if you have any more than five "title levels" within any given function (i.e. Assistant Manager, Manager, Senior Manager, Director, and Vice-President), take a close look at what everybody is actually doing and look for ways to streamline the work.

And if you think you need a lot of different titles so you can offer employees "room to grow" in terms of compensation? Think again. Ideally, your compensation system allows for someone to stay in a role at which they excel for as long as they wish to remain there yet still improve their financial position year after year. And if you don't believe that's possible, read "Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead", a part of which explains how Google manages to do it, and why.

If you're a more modern organization with a culture that eschews traditional hierarchy, let your employees choose their own titles, since they don't really mean anything anyway! Just be wary if people start trying to decide whether a "Marketing Ninja" is more or less senior than a "Brand Guru"; if anyone believes that's actually important enough to debate, it's probably a sign that a more traditional structure is warranted. Customer-facing roles need not be exempt from this approach -- explaining why you choose to call yourself a "Solutions Hunter" could even be a great ice-breaker -- but you can always have more conservative "external titles" if you feel your customers lack a sense of whimsy.

But to all the hiring managers out there: stop relying on titles to make hiring decisions! In fact, ignore them completely. Instead, look carefully at what each candidate has actually accomplished and compare those results against what your team needs. When you're writing a job posting, focus on the experience that a successful candidate needs to have, not the title they need to have held. (If you list, "X years as a Director" in the "requirements" section of the listing, rethink your job posting to avoid needlessly eliminating anyone who might have earned better experience without ever holding the title of "Director".)

William Shakespeare famously wrote, "What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet."

Shouldn't the same be true for experience?


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