Be a progressive leader: How to break free from traditional job titles

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

We want it all. We like the idea of flat organizations with proactive and self-managing team members who lead together, but we also covet titles that convey awe-inspiring prestige and position. What’s a team to do?

Employee disengagement is climbing, with studies indicating that 85% of team members rate themselves as disengaged at work. To address this, organizations try to affect change and pursue progressiveness. Unfortunately, these experiments rarely have a positive impact on disengagement levels. Why? Because we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to cling to the status quo while trying to usher in a new way of thinking, doing and being.

At the root of the problem sits the proverbial sacred cow; power hierarchies. Even the enthusiasm generated by the best employee engagement initiative is bound to fizzle out. You’ve been there, in the thick of a new employee engagement activity. Did it rock your world? Probably not. And I also bet its impact on the power hierarchy was barely noticeable.

Replacing the traditional pyramid of power with a model based on self-organizing is a game-changer. However, the extent that the team buys into the full concept, not just the easy parts, will determine its success or failure.

Some common questions come up for any organization on the journey to self-organizing, including

“What do we call ourselves?”

“Joan was a VP at her last company and she wants that title here too. What do we do?”

“What do I put on my LinkedIn profile?”

Our minds are hardwired to work by association. When you hear the title Vice-President or VP, it creates a mental image of someone with prestige and rank within the organizational power structure. Let’s examine a few more associations we have to traditional titles.

If we journey back to 1955, it’s interesting to note that of all Fortune 200 companies, only one was led by someone holding the title of CEO. The Oxford English Dictionary didn’t include the moniker until 1972. In 2021, you’ll have to look far and wide to find a company that doesn’t have a CEO. Why is the term Chief Executive Officer so coveted, and is it appropriate in self-organizing businesses? The term chief traces back to the Latin word caput, which translates to head of a group. An executive is “someone in a high position, especially in business.” The most frequent use of the word officer references those holding positions of authority in the army or police department. Coming full circle, a president is “the chief officer of an organization usually entrusted with the direction and administration of its policies.” A director is “a person in charge of an organization or of a particular part of a company’s business.” And, lastly, a manager is the person responsible for managing an organization.

Do you see the thread that runs through this? Head of, high position, rank, authority, police, direction, in charge. These words are all bedfellows of power. Remember that our brains work by association. While each word in isolation is innocuous, language can pull us into the past when we’re trying to move forward and build a different kind of organization.

How can we go about escaping the job title quandary?

USE A UNIVERSAL NAME FOR EVERYONE ON YOUR TEAM

French company Fly The Nest is an excellent example of embracing change in this tricky to navigate area. All 19 people on their team hold the title of co-founder. This approach to job titles might seem odd initially, but isn’t a new constellation of people formed every time someone joins?

A similar approach substitutes the word founder with leader. Everyone in a company leads something, even if that something is small. Instead of asking people accustomed to leadership titles to dispense with them, demonstrate how everyone is a leader.

CHOOSE OR INVENT NEW WORDS

Many self-organizing companies use the term Lead Link or Cross Link for the leader of a team (often called a circle). These roles are different from traditional leadership positions. They focus on linking the purpose of the team to the purpose of the company. Sound a little weird? That’s precisely the point. If we use the language we’ve always used, we’ll associate it with paradigms of the past. The term Lead Link (since evolved to Cross Link) took root in an organizing system known as Holacracy.

The Buffer team stands out as a great example of how changing paradigms can have far-reaching effects when it comes to job titles. They realized that women represented less than 2 percent of their developer candidates. As a result, they took several steps to attract more women. For example, they removed words such as rock star, ninja and dominate from their role descriptions. These words tend to resonate more with men. Whatever titles you choose, ensure they don’t discriminate.

RELY ON THE TEAM, CIRCLE OR DEPARTMENT NAME

Celo.org, a team dedicated to building an inclusive financial system, is another noteworthy reference example for companies grappling with the job title dilemma. If you take a look at the Celo.org team page, you’ll notice that none of the team members list role titles per se. Instead, they focus on their team or area of contribution.

A conventional title may be “Joan Thompson, Vice-President, Marketing.” Instead, how about “Joan Thompson, Marketing.” Internal resistance to this kind of change may arise, and you may find yourself thinking, “but how will people know how senior I am?” Leadership within organizations doesn’t come from titles but rather from building trust. Your company’s approach to titling where clients or prospects are concerned should be a feature rather than a bug. Choose to boldly, bravely and intentionally be different. Take pride in building something new instead of trying to fit into an archaic system.

ADOPT API’S

In a world obsessed with hierarchy, choosing to be a lead together team can be challenging. Sometimes we may decide to create APIs. APIs are the bits of software code that allow different applications to connect and communicate with each other. For example, you may choose to recruit for a VP Marketing, where, internally, VP stands for Value Producer. This way, everyone in your organization can be a VP.

Titles have unconscious associations that may have unintended operational consequences, so bear that in mind before choosing your approach. I’ll leave you with one last example. If you choose the title “Head of,” what associations might follow? The head is where the thinking happens. It controls the hands and the feet. Is the person filling this role doing all the thinking? Is everyone else on the team meant to take all their direction from that person? Sounds like a quick path to disengagement. Whatever you decide, choose consciously.

Thanks for reading :-) If you found this info helpful, hit that clap button a few times. It would mean a lot to me and helps other people discover the story.

I help Founder CEOs of companies between 5 & 40 people that are experiencing early stage success and are ready to scale — especially those wanting to build shared responsibility and accountability within their team. In addition to my writing on Medium, you will find helpful articles and tools here. Info about my latest book, Lead Together: The bold, brave, intentional path to scaling your business can be found here. Receive the first three chapters of the book for free here.

The Scale Coach for Founder CEOs and co-author of Reinventing Scale-Ups: Radical Ideas for Growing Companies

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