The role of job titles
For most businesses, job titles convey two important pieces of information – seniority and specialism. If you have a team of people who don’t know each other personally, it’s vital to give them a framework for how to interact. The job title indicates level of authority/experience, as well as the person’s area of expertise. This avoids awkward conversations between strangers within the same company by setting expectations.
Ego and obfuscation
But for some individuals, the job title has a third function – an ego boost. In a large organization there are some for whom their title is inextricably linked to their self-worth. And they’ll fight hard to get one which they think looks good on them. This is a huge time-suck for managers and HR staff, since titles need to reflect the structure of the company. The guy who wants a fancy title needs to be handled carefully – they may lack maturity but can still be talented and hard to replace. A fact they know, and seek to exploit.
This creates unique titles which satisfy the ego demand but are sufficiently abstruse not to upset peers. Unfortunately this torpedos one of the functions of the title – to communicate seniority.
Large companies just have to put up with that downside. But a small agency doesn’t: we all know each other, we know our area of specialism and the experience is obvious. Plus there’s utility in not making the structure formal since people can take different roles on each account. They aren’t defined by their title in the eyes of coworkers or clients.
This is all very well for senior folks who have already collected all the job title badges they care about. But at the start of your career, progression is important. And often that’s marked by promotions – hence changes in title. For instance, from exec to manager to director in agency world. So we’ll need to mark and celebrate these milestones in a different way – and of course reward them. The most important element of progression is the evolution in the day-to-day work, which can be phased in sooner without titles.
Two other challenges with this kumbaya stance: you still need to recruit talent out in the market, which defines roles by level and specialism. For talent intake, you need to shape the job spec and title so candidates know whether to apply. The second is that staff must put something on their LinkedIn profile and resume – and that needs to be common currency. For now, we’re just asking people to propose a title or to use something generic.
We did briefly consider our own Firebrand-esque titles – Firestarter etc. Those are on-brand and pretty fun, but ultimately pointless. They only communicate seniority internally, which we know, not externally. And basically it’s a bit indulgent and self-absorbed. There is a vogue in marketing agencies to come up with new titles – catalyst, evangelist etc. For Big PR those might be fine since their staff are strangers but share a common vernacular. Externally though, they are confusing.
At some point, I hope we’ll need job titles. That will mean we’re at scale and multi-office. But for now the flexibility, low drama and simplicity of having no titles feels right. And if it deters the prima donnas, that’s good too.
Morgan McLintic is the founder of Firebrand. With over 25 years’ experience in the tech sector, he advises clients about their marketing and PR strategy. Prior to Firebrand, he was the founder of digital communications agency, LEWIS in the US, growing it to 250 staff and $35m revenue.