Leverage The Power Of Titles
– After all titles are still valued in the external world
Semco’s most precious asset is the wisdom of its workforce, and our success grows out of our employees’ success
In a Nutshell
Job titles don’t occupy much space – whether they’re on a business card or an email signature, a name plaque or someone’s LinkedIn profile. However, they have a tremendous impact on the identity of a person, what they can do and what the world around them expects from them. Though businesses are increasingly embracing alternative management practices, top-level management positions and C-suite titles continue to be coveted and hard-won.
Those few words, that describe what a person does, have an enormous effect on their egos, their job satisfaction and overall purpose in life. Simply put, titles are short, albeit powerful, identities that people chisel for themselves over years spent climbing the corporate ladder. But titles aren’t equally made and neither are they equally efficient. Generally speaking, the efficiency of something – both tangible and intangible, is contingent upon not just its capacity to get things done, but also upon how quickly it can get results. In that sense, traditional C-suite titles are obviously more efficient than titles that’re several rungs below on the corporate ladder.
For instance, an email from the Director of Marketing is more likely to be read and responded to, than an email sent out by an analyst or an intern in the marketing department. Even if the contents of both emails are the same, it’s the more impressive title that evokes a response. Now imagine a world where it’s okay to (sensibly) use different titles to open doors and create new opportunities. Sounds impossible? Hear us out.
Allow people the flexibility to use different titles in different contexts to open doors – as long as it is within the realm of common sense.
Job titles have an inherent value that conventional organizations tend to reserve for just a select few. But, if you strip them down to the basics, titles have no impact on company costs and yet have the capacity to psychologically impact the people who hold them. Helping people retitle themselves creatively, and within the context of whatever makes common sense, is a great way to increase their engagement at work. It boosts their confidence while reaching out to external stakeholders and improve their self-worth. But most importantly, it helps open up new opportunities for the company because it helps even low-level employees project themselves favorably to the external world and helps them catalyse connections they’ve been struggling to make. So, why not?
Focus more on people and less on titles: It’s quite common in conventional organizations to find formal introductions of titles preceding introductions of the actual person. Such a practice draws more attention to the title, while almost ignoring the person themselves. To reverse the situation and place people ahead of positions, consider doing away with all formal titles internally. When you focus more on people and the work they do, titles become inconsequential, secondary details. Overtime, there will be a greater association of people’s names, rather than titles, to their roles and responsibilities within the company.
Use titles to open doors in the external world: Although it might be a great leveller to remove all titles within the company, it might not (yet) work in the outside world. It’s still the norm to reserve favorable responses for people with more impressive titles. For instance, in the outside world, one company’s general manager or director of finance would like to talk only with their counterparts or higher-ups in other companies. Such conventional attitudes make it necessary for your employees to “fit in” and project themselves in a favorable light. So, even if you’re heading towards a horizontal organizational structure without formal titles, it helps to project a semblance of “normalcy” in order to open up new opportunities. For that, you need to be flexible and allow employees to choose their own titles to print on business cards or use as their email signatures.
Insist on common sense: The idea behind this practice is to leverage the power of titles and the traditional influence they wield on people’s perceptions. Everybody who’s ever been an intern knows that their messages, calls and emails are the most likely to get ignored in a corporate setting. Now imagine an intern being given the power to sign off their emails as an analyst. It sounds much more important than the title, ‘Intern’; but more importantly, there’s a bigger chance of them succeeding in their attempts to reach out and make a connection. But of course, it would defeat the whole purpose if the intern were to ignore common sense while choosing a title for themselves. Like, a sales intern signing off as the sales director is definitely going to fall flat. The titles people choose, to project themselves favorably in the eyes of external stakeholders, needs to be sensible and related to their level of expertise and their current context.
Encourage people to choose titles with foresight: The freedom to choose different titles under different contexts, isn’t just about getting the most out of job titles. It’s also about the person’s career if they choose to leave your company and explore other opportunities. The world, if they leave, will want to know what they’ve been doing until now. And the answer is usually in terms of job titles and years of service. So, encourage your employees to choose titles that don’t just strategically project them as the right person for the job, but also describe the work they do in the best way possible. Titles they choose should be coherent on a LinkedIn profile or a resume they’d use to apply for other jobs. The same goes for any government papers that document a person’s career and affects their pension after retirement. For instance, Semco employees, like all people in Brazil, had to maintain a labor portfolio which recorded every company they worked for; every position/title they ever held and the number of years they worked at each organization. The government pension they received after retirement was based on this record.
Be aware of the legal implications: Though it makes complete sense on paper, this is not a straightforward practice to implement in most countries, thanks to some stringent legislations. For instance, the title a person holds may entitle them to specific rights that are directly associated with their position in the eyes of the law. An employee who can formally identify themselves as holding a certain title, but as not having access to the privileges of that title, could sue their employer. And, they’d probably win because such laws tend to be pretty protective of employee rights and are meant to prevent organizational exploitation. So, if there’s a gap between the title a person is projecting to open doors for the company and the original position they were recruited for, there could be some legal risks for the company.
Implement this practice in a climate of complete trust: In order to avoid the legal complications described above, you need to assess the level of trust your company enjoys amidsts employees. Only when there’s a longstanding context of trust and safety with employees can you nullify the legal risks involved. So invest in building trust and transparency in your organization before you allow your employees to retitle themselves.
Level to implement
First focus on building trust and transparency in your organization
Put people ahead of positions and titles
Be flexible to leverage the power of a higher title in the external world
Base the choice of titles on common sense
Keep the long-term implications of your choice in mind while picking titles
Be aware of the legal risks involved with such flexibility
Be motivated by your ego while choosing a title
Lose sight of common sense while choosing the title
Be inconsistent with titles while emailing the same external stakeholder
Use different titles with external stakeholders who know your position in the company well
Abuse the trust the company places in its employees
Opens new doors and opportunities that were hitherto unattainable
Promotes employees’ sense of ownership
Minimizes ego-centric corporate games
Reduces power distances internally
Potential cultural tensions could surface among employees who perceive the practice in a negative connotation like lying or misleading
Inconsistencies with the market could arise when different people contact the same external stakeholder with the same titles
People could get a little lost or overwhelmed initially
Semco abolished all formal titles internally but it also understood the kind of power titles could wield in the world outside. So, while Semco employees preferred to be known for the work they did, rather than the titles they held, they did choose titles that helped them open new doors in the outside world. As long as these self-assigned titles were within the realms of common sense and weren’t too far-fetched, they were encouraged at Semco.
So, it was quite common for interns to sign off as analysts; for employees with years of experience (but no top-management title) to sign of as the heads of their departments or fields. It was also quite common for people to have more than one title, which they used according to the context.
Like this Semco engineer, Guilherme Gusson, who at one time had two different email signatures. He kept switching between them according to the stakeholder he was dealing with at the moment. For instance, when he was emailing high level executives in other companies, he would sign off as ‘Head Of Engineering’. However, internally he didn’t have any title and signed off on all internal emails with just his name and department.