Titles Matter – Part 2

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Today we have a guest editorial as Steve is on holiday.

I never used to think about job titles too much beyond how I self-defined myself; DBA, SQL Consultant perhaps, PASS Director even. That all changed a couple years ago when I took on the management of a very large project for a client and was given the title of “delivery lead”. You might guess it was about delivering something, but what? Mail? A project? What project?

It would have been ok if that was a job title the organization used, they would have known what bucket to put me in – but it wasn’t. I understood what my role was; deliver X by this date no matter what. That was the “what” in the delivery part, but it wasn’t in the title. At the time I just shrugged, thinking it’s just a title and I understand the job. Mistake!

The fun was just beginning. I’d attend meetings to start to understand what was working and what wasn’t and watch people look at me, trying to figure it out. Was I important? What was my role? All they could see was me quietly attending meetings, taking notes, and asking a question here and there, trying to understand where they were at before I made any changes. Now it’s not that they weren’t told what my role was, it’s that the title just didn’t map at all into their world. I had project managers try to assign me tasks and try to hand me their projects as part of that process, even asking me “what is you do again?”.

If my title had been “Program Manager – Some Goal” or “Executive Sponsor – Project Y” they would have gotten it instantly. Instead it literally took weeks for the various teams to acquire that shared understanding of what my role was. You might fault me at this point for not communicating clearly enough, all I can tell you was that it wasn’t for lack of trying and felt a lot like describing red to someone who couldn’t see.

Titles matter. As humans we want to understand what other people do and where they fit into the hierarchy, even though we often claim to not have or not care about hierarchies and titles. It’s not really about who out ranks who, it’s just a matter of fitting people into our mental model that guides how we interact with the rest of the organization. Titles are the tag we use to do that. Think about it the next time you go to a meeting and meet some new people – and maybe think about how useful (or not) your own title is as they do their own mapping of where you fit in.

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