I’m really starting to believe that job titles don’t matter all that much.
I know we’re conditioned to believe that’s not the case. We’re trained to aim for the highest sounding title in the book, the loftiest honors of course preceded by a “VP” or starting with “Chief” something. And boy, do these things cut deep. I’ve heard that wars are waged to get a coveted “Partner” title in some firms and organizations.
I guess titles matter in those cases, when there’s a clear and direct dollar-value associate with a particular word. Back when I was in magazines, the difference between “Editorial Assistant” and “Assistant Editor” was nearly two-fold. (Titles can be funny this way.)
But dollar value aside, there’s another reason that I find people look to titles: For permission. The bigger the title, the more permission you feel like you have to make certain calls. “Oh, I can’t do that,” you might think. “That’s a VP level decision to make,” you might say.
Which is fine, of course. Except for that nobody gets to a VP level by pretending they don’t know what kinds of decisions they’ll need to make once they get there.
A couple of years ago, the CEO of Carta, Henry Ward published a blog post called, “The Shadow Org Chart.” In it, he set out to figure out who was making the decisions around the office and who people were turning to naturally. To do so, he sent a survey around with these three questions:
- Who energizes you at work? (list 4 or more people)
- Who do you go to for help and advice? (list 4 or more people)
- Who do you go to when a decision needs to be made? (list 4 or more people)
Based on these responses, the company identified people internally who held the greatest influence. They made lists of folks based on whether they were an individual contributor, a manager, or an executive. They mapped out these relationships across the entire org, determining who they would need to convey and communicate with in order to influence the majority of the company.
They also made a list of the top 20 influencers across the organizational overall. Interestingly (and humbly), Henry acknowledged that even as CEO, he didn’t make the top 10 most influential people in the organization.
The point is, regardless of title, people carry influence. Colleagues around you learn who brings them energy. They learn who they can lean on when they have questions. And they know who can make decisions. Even if you don’t carry a title with a “C” at the start of it, you can still carry a lot of influence internally. In fact, just carrying the title at all might not mean anything.
When I saw this blog post for the first time, it didn’t surprise me. I’ve worked in enough different companies to know that you don’t always rely on the most senior person in the room to get something done. I’ve learned how to listen in on different groups and identify the “point person” who will carry a message back to their teams, how to identify a catalyst who can help propel change with you. I’ve been that person myself, and I’ve looked for that person when I’m not on the inside. It doesn’t matter what title they do or don’t have associated with their name. They just get things done.
So if you find yourself waiting around for a title to give you permission to make a certain call or to start a certain project, put a stop to that. Ask yourself: “What would somebody do if they were in charge of this project?” Be that person today. Title or not, you can still carry influence. You’ll know it’s working if you finally get the formal designation months (or even years) down the road. But even if you don’t, you’ll know it’s working if you notice people start coming to you when decisions need to be made.