Title bout

Which fights are the ones worth fighting?

Call this one a title bout, because it’s about a title.

One function of a job title is to provide clarity, to oneself and to others, about the work you do and the offering you provide

My first full-time job was “Assistant Mall Manager,” but I was really like the marketing director of our regional shopping mall. There were enough other issues to deal with, and I was still young and naïve enough, that I never really worried about this particular issue very much.

In my next job, my title was “Design Specialist” for our online shopping platform. This was a new job and a new role in the department. Again, I accepted the title without a second thought. I was desperate to escape where I had been working and thrilled about this new opportunity. Plus I didn’t think I had a choice.

If only I had known. All my job title did was make those around me think I was a threat to their jobs. A threat? Me? Never! Other than my physical size and my perpetual face-scowl, there’s nothing threatening about me.

Oh but there was. I was the new guy with an MBA in a miniverse of complacent people without MBAs, and my murky title of “design specialist” struck those around me as a threat to:

  • The people who wrote code, who “designed” our online presence
  • The people who put together our magazine, who “designed” our print communications
  • The people on our advertising team, who “designed” our advertising
  • The people in our HR department, who “designed” our training and development programs

As I recall, the list goes on which surely says more about the company culture than about my presence.

A year or so in, I begged my direct supervisor to help me change my title. To him, titles weren’t very important relative to the work you did and I agreed, except that after a year I was still constantly having to explain my title to others inside the company, often with soothing tones and protective gestures.

So he agreed to check with HR, to make sure that my change from “design specialist” to anything else that fit on a standard-size business card would not:

  • Affect the rate of my pay
  • Affect the size of my cubicle (measured in square footage)
  • Affect the size of my cubicle (measured in wall height)
  • Affect the contents of my cubicle (measured by chair quantity and plant lustrousness)
  • Affect his workload

A few days later my boss returned to my very relevant cubicle, and to my relief he told me that I could have a new title, as long as the last word was still “specialist.” That was the key word that determined my pay and cubicle accoutrements. Or maybe it was the other way around. Correlation doesn’t indicate causality, after all. But let it be known that at that time, I was and will continue to be a specialist in something.

I rewarded his faith in me by changing from “design specialist” to “marketing specialist.”

Marketing. See? Nothing to be afraid of.

The new title, the new business cards, the new Velcro name plate outside my unchanged cubicle. So much was new about my corporate identity when I changed… evolved, you might say… from Design Specialist to Marketing Specialist. Everything except the job, that is. Yet now, I didn’t have to explain myself as frequently to my coworkers, allowing us to breathe easy and get busy with whatever it was that we were supposed to be doing.

A few closing thoughts:

  • When contemplating your job title, you might not have much say in what they call you.
  • It might be a function of an HR matrix that determines the pay rate and cubic volume of your workspace.
  • Like your job description, it doesn’t define you or place a ceiling on what you can contribute, to your employer and to your personal brand.
  • There is a book-by-its-cover element to your title, both inside your organization and on your resume; before long it will be your achievements that matter more.

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