Do Titles Matter In Our Careers?

mm Russ Finkelstein

My professional life has been a pretty fortunate one when you consider titles. At different times I have been a Founder, Associate Director, Managing Director and Senior Advisor and sometimes held those titles simultaneously.

While I have been primarily directed at “just doing the work” and not looking for recognition, just one year after college I had a very lofty sounding title at a multi-million dollar organization, and I won’t deny that it made me feel pretty good about myself at the time.

However, the title I always wanted was that of “Ombudsman”, based on an elementary school report I wrote about Sweden, where Ombudsmen solved difficult problems. Apart from solving a country’s problems, I just love the word. It sounds so authoritative!

With many of the people I meet there is uncertainty as to how to best compare and contrast opportunities based on the title. What should I aspire to next? Can I be considered for that opportunity without having held the same title previously? How much does my title matter?

My quick answer is that titles matter to work in the same way that how you look matters when you’re dating. Titles shouldn’t be as important as they are, but you want to get swiped in the right direction.

I want everyone I coach to feel like they have choices. Indeed, I think that feeling like you have options is one of the keys to professional happiness. And sometimes, your choices are titularly dependent. Yes, that’s a real expression; “titular dependence”. I know, because I just made it up.

A title is never the measure of a person. However, many busy people do professional profiling, where they assess value based on exactly, and often only, this. If you think about it carefully, you may well remember having done so yourself, thinking, “this person is the ‘Founder’ or ‘Chief Executive Officer’, so I guess I should make the time to meet, and perhaps I should even dress a bit better?”

Many become obsessive about having a title or perhaps a particular organization’s name on their resume. However, the savvy recruiter and hiring person know that your likely fit in a job is more about what you actually did in that role and at the organization.  

I once had a conversation with the chief executive of an organization because her staff was coming to her seeking more impressive sounding titles. She said, “I don’t think titles are really important”, and I replied: “Well, that’s because you have the best title, and the truth is, people do make judgments, and we make assessments of people and their ability to get things done, based on that.”

It’s all very well, in other words, to say that titles don’t matter to you if you’ve never been denied access to a strategically useful meeting, because you didn’t sound important enough. Integrity and your ability to perform well don’t really matter if those inside already barred the door to you.

So it’s important to reflect on your job title, and on whether, and why, it matters to you. This is a question of how you see yourself, how others see you, and how those intersect.

How do you see yourself?

Yes, titles matter.

People often have an aspirational title in their mind, such as the word “director”. The title might confer more responsibility in their mind. Or they might think that doing a job with that title in it might mean the power to execute on things you want. But it’s important to find out how true that is, perhaps by asking people who have that title already, whether your perception is accurate. You’d be surprised at how powerless many directors actually feel, in comparison to junior staff, ready to take on the world. They may feel so hamstrung by fundraising or management to never feel close to the work they love.

It can feel like a commitment to us from others. A title means that an institution has chosen us, on some level, to serve in that role. They have limited resources and have decided to allocate those to us. For some people, when they’re feeling self-doubt, that can make them feel better. Your world may be going to hell, but hey, at least you have been carefully selected!  

Titles can give us a foundation of confidence. We may be less likely to doubt ourselves and others may give us the titular benefit of the doubt. The truth is that many of us do judge ourselves more positively based on the recognition that comes with an important title. We feel like we have power and standing in the world, that people will see us as this thing. This can be good or bad, depending on how you view your role. Some people are very proud of themselves and what they’ve achieved. Others aren’t.

It can feel like you are going down a predictable path. This happens particularly in organizations where there is a partner track, or you’re a communications director, for example, who is looking to move into the next big role. You have a title people know, and they understand that you move up in a certain way. You know who your people are, how you fit into the world of work, and there are professional associations for people like you. My ombudsman dream suffers because there are certain requirements to go with the title that I’m neither experienced nor qualified for, and because I haven’t really made an effort. And I’m not Swedish. But it’s all stuff to think about.

No, titles don’t matter.

What you do well isn’t actually conferred by a title and your self-perception shouldn’t be reflective on what title you have earned. Very often, we seek affirmation from a title. I must be good, because I have a certain title. The true measure of a person’s ability doesn’t reside here, and it shouldn’t be a way to derive your sense of self. It often is, but it shouldn’t be.

Increasingly there is less of a specific notion that you must follow a titular path. Careers have become more about acquiring a specific set of skills, finding where they might fit, and building a personal brand. The result, particularly in more entrepreneurial or creative environments, is that titles themselves become a creative enterprise and there is less focus on a linear progression.  

If you consider some of the people who have most impressed you in professional settings that you know personally or have read about there will be a significant number who haven’t followed an obvious titular line.

How do others see you?

Yes, titles matter.

Individuals and organizations can make judgments on this basis. It might be about getting certain meetings. Or you might be only be allowed to apply for certain scholarships or awards based on the title you currently hold or have held in the past.

Job opportunities & salary. Some people have a very specific determination of what a person can make, based on their prior title. They might say: “We’ll only really consider a person for this job if you’ve been a communications director, previously. If you’ve been an associate director, we won’t consider you.” They could flip through your resume at breakneck speed as result. There are absolutely places that work this way. They’re not my favorite because this approach implies a lack of deep thought and intentionality about the position being filled, or not looking too deeply about the measure of work done at your current workplace. But they exist.  

No, titles don’t matter.

You should be judged on the quality of your work. A title might get you in the door somewhere initially, but on some level, the work that you do in a role is how your work colleagues and partners are going to judge you. Do you follow up on things? Have you been executing on the work you’ve said you’d do? I know many cases of someone with a less impressive title in an organization who so impressed with the quality of their work that they were actively sought out.

Most of us have worked with people who are bad at what they do. A title is a bit like an online dating profile. The words have intrigued me, but now we’re going to meet in person. Just because you say you like “whisky, laughing, and adventure”, doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy actually doing any of those things with you. I know that everyone with the same title is not of similar ability and accomplishment.

There is also this thing of title inflation, these days. Given the growth of startup culture, there are lots of people with impressive sounding titles whose organizations barely exist. It just means the title you have doesn’t necessarily mean that there is an organizational foundation behind it to support it.

The bottom line

It’s important that you reflect on your relationship with job titles as you navigate your career, but don’t be held hostage by a title, or by anyone else’s. Titles aren’t usually an end to themselves, but part of a process of getting closer to some goal you have for yourself. Always be mindful of making sure that the title you aspire to somehow gets you closer to that goal and that you treat people with the kindness and respect they deserve, regardless of the title they have.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >