Do we still need titles?

“What do you do?”

“What’s your title?”

“What department are you in?”

Unfortunately, that’s how we are defined. We are a “copywriter” or a “designer” or a “traditional” advertising type versus a “digital” advertising person. We might be a “car” guy; or worse, not a “car” guy.  We could be a “client,” maybe even the “client.”

In my career I’ve been a reporter, a PR counsel, a client, an account exec, a copywriter, and a creative director.  At least that’s what it said on my business card and how others categorized me.

We seem to need titles for easy categorization. Our title not only declares what we do, it frees us from responsibility for other areas of expertise. It connects us to others with the same title, making us members of a tribe. In some cases, it provides us with a sense of self-importance. It certainly determines what we get paid, though not necessarily our actual value.

For the person on the receiving end of our business cards, our title telegraphs our skill set or talent.  It suggests what they can expect from us.  And it allows them to place us in the proverbial hierarchy left over from the heyday of the railroad industry.

I’m not a big fan of titles, even though I have a couple of them. To me they seem less and less relevant in an age when we need multiple skills.  Don’t we have to be strategists and content creators?  Practice traditional and digital?  Learn to be creative across all kinds of platforms?

True it’s easier to hold onto legacy systems and practices and, in this case, labels.  We’ve grown dependent on them. They’re familiar and comfortable. But eventually we have to break ourselves of the crutches we continue to lean on: how we incent people, the departmentalization of our companies, the processes  and systems that in some cases haven’t changed in years. Maybe even get rid of titles.

What if we just had a bunch of check boxes on our business cards:  __ ideas, __ copy, __ strategy, __ collaboration, __content, __code, __SEO, __social, __optimism, __funny, __committed.  Come up with your own.  Whenever we gave our card out, we simply checked the appropriate boxes based on whom we were giving it to and what we might do with and for them?

What do you think? Are titles still necessary? Do they define us too narrowly? What would you put on your card?

37 comments
portrait artist
portrait artist

Portrait Artist

Very interesting article koato makes you think. Really what kind of people need titles? And whether you fight for those championships because of complexes and problems. I think are important qualities and willingness to fight in the area in which you work.

http://www.portrait-painting.com/portrait_painting.php

Liam Martin
Liam Martin

i always make my own business card through adobe photoshop and ms word, they are satisfactorily made though*',

Ray Martin
Ray Martin

I think we have an inbuilt need to categorise everything around us in order to understand where people or things fit in our own environment. Titles as you point out can be very confining though. I like your multiple choice idea lol

Matt Williams
Matt Williams

First the fluff: the checkbox idea is intriguing, but you're still putting people in pigeonholes – they’re just a bit smaller. How about a visualisation of someone's capabilities on their business card?

You could score people against a set of skills: strategy, copy, ideas, content etc to take your examples (you might also add 'level of responsibility' or let people add whatever they like) and at its simplest present it as a bar chart. Scoring should be consistent within an organisation but not so formal as some soulless system like the Hay Job Evaluation Method.

There are plenty of interesting visualisation opportunities here - you could aggregate that for a whole company, and animate the visualisation of both the person and the company as they evolve over time – could be a fun exercise.

On to the meat: while this isn’t the place for a long discussion of lean and/or agile, I’d argue that the principles underlying these philosophies provide an argument against job titles.

Job titles put people in boxes, and that encourages them to throw problems and/or responsibilities ‘over the wall’ to the next person in the chain or process – it allows blame to be shifted, credit taken, responsibilities shirked and inhibits communication across the organisation and within teams.

By contrast: in agile development the entire team – from design and strategy to development – work together on a daily or even hourly basis and decisions are made by pooling skills rather than taking instructions from a nominal leader (“The Strategy Director” or “The Project Manager”).

Another example: Taiichi Ohno (the father of lean manufacturing, from which the principles of lean and agile are derived) developed the concept of the Andon cord, which allows any employee to stop the production line, something that speaks to principle of group responsibility for the creation of quality output.

Someone noted that job titles allow people to understand their primary responsibilities and help managers to identify gaps in the system (i.e. hierarchy) that need filling.

First, I’d argue that the primary responsibility of anyone in an organisation is to deliver value to the customer – people may need to wear several different hats to do so but they must do so as part of a team. Second, I’d say that it is the responsibility of the organisation to deliver value without waste: job titles only work in resource planning if you have a rigid structure, and rigid structures are inherently wasteful. People and teams need to be flexible in order to deliver value without waste, and I think job titles get in the way of enabling that flexibility.

Brad Noble
Brad Noble

Interesting problem. How do you preserve the efficiencies of an organization but at the same time encourage people to think outside of their roles?

Of course I agree that high value employees add value in areas outside of their accountability, but in order to move forward with anything of quality we also need people to be accountable in specialized areas—copywriters make copy-related decisions; art directors make art-related decisions, and so on. These people take input, of course; there's collaboration, but decisions reside with the experts.

Maybe the alternative is to keep titles and their attendant efficiency and pay-grade benefits, but tell your employees that in order to be leaders in your organization (i.e., promoted), they will need to demonstrate leadership in areas outside of their direct accountability.

Of course, not everyone can do it. And so, not everyone can be leaders.

All that said, I have an as-of-yet undefinable role. Digital product designer is the best I can do. But, can't anyone who makes or contributes to something digital claim to have the same title? Alas ...

Stuart Eccles
Stuart Eccles

At a Made By Many strategy away day 9 months ago, I proposed we give up job titles to a vote by everyone. Broadly everyone agreed it was a good idea an we have launched it as an experiment ever since.

The reasoning for this was.
* We purposely hire and organise teams around multi-disciplinary people. Some people take more roles on projects than others.
* We didn't want to pigeon hole anyone. The problem with titles that are based on skills/activities is as soon as you attach the label, people get excluded from being brought into areas they can be useful by team leaders, even subconsciously. We have one guy who is a talented coder but also an expert in social game design. To call him a developer might mean he wouldn't get called to use those game design skills in a creative process.
* We wanted to be as flat as possible. The problem is the seniority based titles tend to create more and more levels of seniority (how may "Heads of" have you seen that is head of a 1 man department, them). So with promotion comes greater responsibility (and more money) not a new label.
* Strangely billing was an issue. We used to bill by job title (with seniority) but then what happens in multi-disciplinary environments where a person does more than one job (some people end up being account manager, service designer, developer, project managers and strategist for example at the same time, even with a team of 8) we end up over-charging for somethings and under-charging for others, the overall cost of a project becomes harder to judge as it then heavily depends on the seniority of people on the job.
* We wanted to use it as a litmus test for hiring people. If we say "We don't have job titles" and they say "Well I insist on being Senior Executive Creative Management Director (Head of, VP)" then we know we are not made for each other.

People's worried mainly about 3 things
* How will I introduce myself? (Both in a business and personal context)
* Is it going to stop me getting another job if I don't have a title that reflects my seniority?
* What will clients think?

So 9 months in, I can share some experiences.

Broadly it works out fine. We removed job titles from business cards except for the founding partners who have "Founding Partner". People still struggle over the introduction side of things and people still fall into the pattern of introducing using multiple different things depending on the context and who they are talking to. A lot of people we have already liked as hires have liked the idea of no job titles. No one has really cared about the getting another job thing, partly because it's been implicit that we don't really care what you call yourself. And finally clients don't care as long as the person doing the job is smart, talented and competent.

It is all far from perfect mainly because we have tried to make a subtle change, not dictating the "banning" of a job title. I have no idea what it would look like in much bigger companies and I'm still wrestling with some UK employment law issues, but in general, you know, it feels good for now.

Stuart Eccles

PS still wondering what I should put on my Twitter bio. This is the big problem...
.-= Stuart Eccles´s last blog ..Hacking Safari Reader For Even Less Distraction =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Stuart/Brad:
Agree with you both and like the deck. Easier to do in smaller org or new company. Challenging to make the changes in an older/larger company with muscle memory and default positions as you know. But you can do it. Takes commitment, leadership and some key people to get on the train.

Brad Noble
Brad Noble

Stuart,

Great presentation. Thanks for sharing it.

Your point about "just ditching job titles without the rest is not enough" is well taken.

All this seems to fall in place when the right people are on board. I've certainly been on teams that have operated like this. I'm on one now. Once you've worked in this kind of environment, the idea of going to a place that's wired any other way is unthinkable.

Hiring! Not just warm bodies anymore!

Stuart Eccles
Stuart Eccles

Its hard to say if the sans-titles thing has a direct effect on productivity and collaboration as really it is just a small part of a philosophy of running a dynamic business using self-directed, self-organising multi-disciplinary teams organised around the problem not a set process.

Just ditching job titles without the rest is not enough. But with whole thing, yep collaboration is great and better collaboration in a team leads to greater productivity of the team.

I've uploaded an extract from the presentation we gave if you are interested.

http://www.slideshare.net/stueccles/extract-on-dynamic-teams-at-made-by-many

edward boches
edward boches

Stuart:
Totally awesome. Sorry for the delay in getting this comment up. Went into spam somehow. This is a great case study. Really really like hearing this and glad that is has worked out. I take it that productivity and collaboration have both improved?

Colby Gergen
Colby Gergen

Titles matter in three cases: paychecks, investors, and clients.

Next semester, I'll be working with Mizzou's student agency, MoJo Ad. However, the position I'm in doesn't have a title because they just created. I have objectives to accomplish next semester, but I define how I go about them.

A lot of what I hope to be doing is connecting with those outside of Mizzou to bring tools (for research, tracking Internet jibber-jabber, etc) and learning opportunities back to students at Mizzou. I went to the professor in charge of making sure I don't screw up and asked him for a title. I told him, "I think it's going to be hard for people to take me seriously if they don't know what I do."

His response was the best thing I've ever heard in this "Do we need titles?" debate:

"We brought you in to change things. Whatever title you need to do that, that's your title. The more important you make it sound, the more change you'll be able to create."

Chook
Chook

I agree, I think titles have their place and are very useful.

Erica Nardello
Erica Nardello

You've got some great ideas here. Honestly, it grabs my attention when someone has a creative title that showcases exactly who he or she is. I once interviewed Tony Hsieh from Zappos.com and his assistant emailed me shortly thereafter. Her signature said "Admin. Assistant aka Time Ninja to Alfred Lin and Tony Hsieh." I remember commenting in the article that having NINJA in your title would be so much fun - everyone should have it.

Also, you're right about having titles boxing us in. My parents are both multi-skilled: my dad is a CPA, but also does financial consulting and advising when he's not doing taxes; my mom worked as a pharmaceutical rep, but is also a pharmacist. Those additional skills weren't just passing interests - they're things that make my parents better at their jobs. They distinguish them from other people in similar "Accountant" roles. Check boxes would be helpful in finding out who someone really is!
.-= Erica Nardello´s last blog ..ericanardello: First stop on this work-related mid-afternoon adventure... #smdphilly gift certificates from @Digitas_Health (@ Lucky Strike Lanes & Lounge) =-.

Paul Nealy / Antidote X
Paul Nealy / Antidote X

We have never been a fan of traditional titles because our entire staff is multi-talented, so we came up with titles that worked for us. My card says that I am a "Digeterian" and we also have "Ideographers" and "Webologists". We had a "Communicologist" but we abandoned that one because it didn't sound right. That's the beauty of this type of title - we can make em up and let them go just as quick. These titles make for great conversation starters and has the side benefit of defining what the title means based on the needs of whom we are speaking to.

David Saxe
David Saxe

We haven't used titles since we got started. Based on the roles we play in our agency, nothing covered it - we were only inventing titles, to your point, to give those we connected with a quick sense of understanding of one of the pieces we covered in our shop. In my world, most people really just want a quick understanding of (1) whether you're a "creative" or an "account guy" and (2) if you're high up enough in your organization to justify the time I'm spending with you.
I worked at Starbucks for 2 years while in school - the whole organization refers to every employee as a "partner". Schulz on down. I see the complication that adds externally for those trying to figure out your organization, but internally, this hand will raise when the vote comes to abolish titles.
.-= David Saxe´s last blog ..Thoughts On Networking Events =-.

Jim Mitchem
Jim Mitchem

When I first tried to get a job in advertising, a CD in a shop told me to pitch myself as an 'ideaguy.' You know, like Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom. I was proud he thought that was a good title, so I tried it. Unfortunately, I received more strange looks than anything. Seniors in this business looked at me like I was an arrogant man-child (because i wasn't young).

I have a hard time w/titles now. I own a company, I'm a copywriter, I'm a regular writer, and I'm still an idea guy. Hell, most times it seems antiquated to say I'm in 'advertising' since so much of what i do is not directly related to the traditional idea of advertising.
.-= Jim Mitchem´s last blog ..The Bastard. =-.

Michelle Tripp (@michelletripp)
Michelle Tripp (@michelletripp)

Like Sky mentioned, I'm also conflicted by titles. As an ENTJ (ENTP on weekends ;) I love the sense of order that titles bring. Responsibility and accountability drive productivity, and titles keep the system ordered enough that you can quickly identify links in the chain that might need more support or reinforcement. In some ways, titles are a management tool.

But with that said, it's true... some people see a title as a barrier between what they're responsible for and what someone else is responsible for, and they use it as an excuse to become complacent, not learn new things, or not take ownership. They've let a title become a destination. In a fast-moving world that sees monumental change practically every day, that kind of attitude will compromise the team and deeply hamper the individual's ability to stay connected to the team, and ultimately... to be effective.

As time goes on, people who naturally love to learn and don't see titles as boundaries will stand out in an organization, making those hiding behind titles appear to be dragging... or worse, dinosaurs.

I think titles (or better yet, "roles") don't really hurt anything. Your people who are self-motivated won't let titles get in their way, and the ones who use them as a crutch will identify themselves as someone who either needs a more mentored approach to evolving their skills, or someone who needs to move on.
.-= Michelle Tripp (@michelletripp)´s last blog ..The BrandForward Top 10 Podcast: Week of June 21st, 2010 =-.

Ali Davies
Ali Davies

This post really resonated with me. I am a label rebel. After 14 years in the Corporate world being labelled to death, I finally broke out when I left to be self employed in 2001. Now I avoid labels as much as I can as they can be very limiting in some respects. However, society's dependance on sticking us into pidgeon holes as a means of identification with labels means that I still sometimes have to work around the labels game.

edward boches
edward boches

Ali,
Well, the good news is that you know who you are what you do and why you do it. If sometimes you have to label yourself to satisfy a client, at least it's you making the ultimate decision.

Sky McElroy
Sky McElroy

I've always believed that we don't need titles. That titles are, as you argued, products of an old legacy system: suitable for the structure of a "traditional" advertising agency, but far too constraining as boundaries become blurred and it becomes crucial to have a multitude of skill-sets. When I first got into advertising, I always argued that should I start my own agency, no one would have no titles or labels--that everyone would work on everything.

But there is something useful in a title. From a macro-organizational standpoint, titles act as labels that help us understand what our primary responsibility is. And they allow others outside of the organization to more quickly understand where our primary responsibilities lie within an organization. I've come to denote titles as an inference of specialty rather than a delimiting label: e.g. He is particularly skilled as a copywriter (advertising) but is probably part of a larger creative team, or she specializes in corporate communications (general business) but works to help put together the organization's larger marketing strategy.

The problem with titles come when they become limiting labels rather than general descriptions. In some more traditional organizations, particularly in fields with more rigid specializations and departments as Finance and Transportation, titles really are labels as to the responsibilities of a job. In companies with flatter organizational structures, titles become more an inference of primary speciality rather than a limiting description of responsibility. How delimiting a title becomes is a result of the larger organizational structure and culture.

To answer your question: Do we NEED titles? No. Are titles helpful? Yes. Maybe we should just boxes on our business cards that we mark off fluidly on a individual basis with respect to our current roles or by what we can offer in a given moment. But I suspect that could be a bit off-putting based on our usual expectations (and perhaps it is what we've come to expect that is really in question) if our roles were always changing. And perhaps introductions would become a little more confusing and drawn out if we ditched titles completely (Though maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing; after all, it would help start a conversation. At the very least the suggestion of checking off boxes has the potential to generate some pretty badass business cards). But maybe we should keep titles for ease of communicating not only domestically but across cultures, and come to understand them in a general way rather than as rigid labels; as inferences of specialty within an organization and not definitions of what one can and can not do.
.-= Sky McElroy´s last blog ..skymcelroy: I have goosebumps, because this is what it was like.#Treme =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Sky:
Thanks for the comment. I love it when comments are as thoughtful as posts themselves.

Gavin Heaton
Gavin Heaton

Perhaps we should just say that we "help solve your problems". Titles, however, tend to mean more within your organisation - they infer rank, power and connection. Maybe titles really are all about "me" and "my business". Not so much about you and yours.

Mike Scheiner
Mike Scheiner

Edward, this is such a great point and also relates back to your "T Structure" post. I think that there are two points here, and one that is somewhat mentioned above. First, I do think you still need to have some type of hierarchy in terms of title structure that establishes senior people. Back to your point, I agree that we should all carry the title of something that doesn't label or literally define us, such as "Brand Curator or Brand Ambassador." I'm wondering if that would seem more appropriate for todays transmedia approach?
The other area that I think will eventually evolve is the word ad agency, digital, or pr firm. Again for the same reasons mentioned above, communication practices will also want to blur the lines and be perceived as idea centric as possible. As always, thank you for the insight and perspective.

Tom Cunniff
Tom Cunniff

Titles and org charts don't define what we actually do, and they never have.

In my first job in "traditional" advertising, I was an assistant print production manager. But I wanted to add more value, so I also learned a lot about typesetting and fonts and color-correcting proofs and so some people in the creative department started viewing me as a really useful resource for that stuff too.

I didn't have a title. I just saw a need, and tried to help. It's a big part of how I transitioned into the creative department.
.-= Tom Cunniff´s last blog ..Nestlé Social Media Nightmare =-.

tobe
tobe

Reading the obits provides some guidance for better job titles. I like characterizations such as raconteur, bon vivant, dandy, and grand poobah.

edward boches
edward boches

Villain. Polygamist. Ex-pat. Night owl. Stripper. I guess there are some pretty good things you could put on a card if you had the nerve.

Caroline
Caroline

As a student, I have to say that titles mean very little on their own. You're the Executive VP, Director, Senior Manager of what? It's almost as if we need an entire class dedicated to explaining the numerous titles in the business. When I meet people I always ask what they do every day, what projects they are working on, and how they got there. Action and responsibilities hold a lot more credibility than a title to me. Although maybe my opinion will change when I have a title to call my own!

Geoff Dennett
Geoff Dennett

Titles seem to me to be a control mechanism. I agree with what you have said here about the fact that a title defines a person's job and alleviates them of other responsibilities, but titles can also limit people's success in some cases. This too is a control mechanism. It is the first thing human resource employees read to determine whether or not a potential candidate is capable of filling a role. Of course, there is a need to sift through the gravel to find the gold, but is there another way we could identify exceptional employees? I remember having to take an aptitude test to work at the Cheesecake Factory, shouldn't advertising agencies or "brand consulting firms" do something similar?

Scott Karambis
Scott Karambis

I agree that organizations pigeon-hole through long habit, based on a century-old history of labor rationalization, but it's for a very specific reason no one has yet disproven despite many grand claims about our brave new world: it makes big organizations more efficient and generates more cash-money for those at the top. One thing missing from your intriguing multiple-choice card is the title, which defines status as well as pay-grade. Those of us at the top--partners, directors, EVP's--tend to be more cavalier about titles (and roles) than those still fighting for and looking forward to those VP initials beside our names. But ask your next generation crew. I'd be curious to hear their POV's.

edward boches
edward boches

That's a great idea. I will do that. Agree that there is some value. But finding more and more in this new interdisciplinary (vs multi-disciplinary) environment, that we can't let people off the hook because something isn't in their "job description." We all need to embrace more than the responsibility suggested by a title. Will poll the TNGGers.

Wade
Wade

What's a business card? ; ) - no, really great stuff, as usual. I agree titles box us in and create a very siloed approach to what do (as/creative) my job/your job. And I'm tired of employeers relying on them as a measure of future/potential ability. Look at my work - look at my experience - not at my title.

edward boches
edward boches

Agree. Titles might inform, but they also mislead by narrowing perceptions.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

I confess, I'm pro titles, but perhaps they are only appropriate for the secondary phase of an advertising effort. What I mean here is... assume the first phase is coming up with an idea. For this phase, I think everybody can and should contribute. But putting the idea into practice requires specialist skills (copy, design, SEO, account management) and for this phase, titles are good. At least that's my two bits.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

But what's bigger than advertising?

Okay... um, I'm still pro titles because they communicate. Ideally, they communicate a passion; at their least valuable, they simply identify you as the ditch digger.

edward boches
edward boches

Everyone keeps showing up here to talk about advertising. Let's talk about something bigger. This post isn't really about advertising titles, it's about status quo, comfort, familiarity, labels and stasis. (I know we sort of really need titles, but we don't need the traditional thinking from whence they come.) Also, re: the skills. We do need awesomeness on the vertical axis, but even these folks need to be more multi-dimensional, no?

j a n
j a n

I think our brains are hard-wired to streamline/simplify, and titles (labels?) are an efficient short-cut.

Two other thots: it's also very painful when you're unemployed - you feel like you have no identity. "well... I WAS a marketing director..." ugh. Wish we could just say, "I'm Jan, and I come up with great ideas."

Secondly, I've also wished we could introduce others based on who they are, rather than what they do: "This is Jeff, and he's an honest man of great integrity."

Great post - I love the check box idea. :-)
.-= j a n´s last blog ..my top 10 favorite dads =-.