Convention, Clarity, and Culture in Job Naming
It’s really hard to define job titles in a small company. When a company has only 2 or 3 people working, everyone does everything. Or perhaps one person does everything and hires a few specialists to help. Either way, it usually seems silly for one of these three people to call themself “CEO.” A company that size simply doesn’t need a chief, an executive, or an officer. It’s all way too formal at that size. After years as “CEO” at Lullabot, I feel much more comfortable calling myself “Founder” at my new startup.
But as a company grows, people’s jobs become more specialized. It’s just the nature of group dynamics. After an organization hits about 7 or 8 people, each of us starts to crave an understanding of our context — our role — and how we fit into the system. No one can do everything anymore. So each of us starts to look for definition in our role — so we can feel effective and important. And in a larger group, it’s this context that helps give us a sense of purpose.
Yet, this transition can often be difficult for company founders. It seems sad and frustrating to narrowly define roles. After all, it’s the agility and flexibility of our team that got us here. We wouldn’t want to lose our experimental spirit. If we define Susan as a “Senior Back-End Developer,” does this really capture the extent of her capabilities? What do we do if the client needs some front-end changes? Or changes to the copy on the website? Defining these roles can feel like it boxes us in.
This is one of the reasons why many companies head toward more quirky and oblique titles like “Chief Troublemaker,” “Senior Cat Wrangler,” or “Digital Overlord” as a way of keeping things loose and making it easy to color outside the lines. I certainly don’t want to step on anyone’s fun company culture, but I have yet to see this level of abstractness work very well — especially as a company scales.
Likewise, it is often a challenge to find the right title for any given person. What if they don’t rise to the responsibility of this title? What if someone else comes along that might do this job better? Demotions are demoralizing. If we keep things abstract enough, or if we hesitate to empower someone with a new title, perhaps we could still have the option to demote them without anyone even realizing it! But that’s a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? How can they be successful in a new role if they aren’t really allowed to embody it? And how can we judge their success or failure? It goes beyond the scope of this article, but some candid and honest conversations can go a long way here.
Titles empower us. They give us context. They give us authority. They give us responsibility, a sense of importance, and context. They imply trust and trustworthiness to coworkers, customers, friends, and family. Titles are a mantra. They give us a sense of purpose. They help us more clearly define our role and, therefore, they become a measuring stick by which we can calculate a job well done.
Being able to put “the” in front of a title is especially empowering. Whether this is the “Head of Marketing,” the “Director of People,” or the “COO,” it’s clear that we’re talking to the person we need to be. And it would be a shame to disempower that person by calling them, “Wizard of Light Bulb Moments.”
Titles should be clear. They should be simple. They should be conventional and self-explanatory. Employees should feel comfortable putting their title on a bank loan application or telling their uncle at Thanksgiving.
Companies change as they grow. If we want to keep our culture intact, we’re going to need to put in some work to define what makes us unique and special. There are lots of other ways to express our company’s inventiveness, unconventionality, or joyous atmosphere. They will come through in our core values, mission statement, vision, employee handbook, and other expressions of company culture. These are more verbose, more intentional, and longer-lasting expressions that are more likely to stand the test of time. Meanwhile, we’re giving our employees the clarity and empowerment they need to be successful and feel a sense of satisfaction knowing they’re meeting the needs of their role.
Jeff Robbins is a business coach, mentor, and virtual business partner who works one-on-one with company owners and leaders to help them build vision and direction for their companies while building productivity, stability, and happiness for their employees and themselves. You can work with him too. Reach out to set up a free session.