Brad Feld

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Title Inflation Emerges With A Vengence

May 23, 2011

Suddenly, title inflation is everywhere. I’ve seen more business cards or email sigs lately with adjectives like “executive” or “senior” or “senior executive” or “special” or “chief” in front of more traditional titles (e.g. “vice president”). The “chief” one is especially bizarre since it’s not always obvious whether the CSO is a “Chief Sales Officer” or a “Chief Security Officer” which in and of itself is a problem.

I’ve never paid much attention to titles. This is especially true when I’m involved in helping recruit someone for a company. I’m much more focused on what the person is going to do and what they’ve done in the past than what their title is (or was). Every now and then an obsession with title is a positive trait as it drives an important discussion about roles; most of the time it’s an annoying obsession with title.

When I think about roles, regardless of where the person sits in the organization, I like to think of them as “head of something.” That lets me focus on the “something” that the person is responsible for. This scales up and down the organization since the receptionist in a company is the “head of meeting people when they walk in the door and making sure the are comfortable and find their way to the meeting they are there for.” More importantly, it forces senior execs, such as a COO, CSO, CPO, CRO, CIO, CTO, CDO, CAO, or CFO to define clearly what they are the “head” of.

I heard the phrase “be the CEO of your job” a while ago from Mark Pincus and have used it many times over the years. Whenever I’m talking to someone about their role in a company, I’m always trying to figure out what they are going to be the CEO (or head) of. When I have the inevitable board member / executive discussion about roles and responsibilities when there are issues, I always carry this metaphor around in my head (e.g. are you, the executive, being an effective CEO of your job). And, when I meet someone new and I see that their title is “Senior Technology Strategist – Digital Products Division”, I try to figure out what they are “the head of”, even if it is one specific thing.

If you are CEO of a company, try the following exercise. Take everyone that directly reports to you and change their title to “head of X”. Scribble this on a white board and see if you have all the X’s you need for your whole company covered. Is there overlap that is unnecessary or are there big holes. And are the right people the right heads of things?

Then, have each of your direct reports do this for their direct reports. Rather than worry about titles, put “head of X” for each person. Keep doing this down the hierarchy. Do you have what you need covered? Is there duplication and overlap? Are the right people heads of the right things?

While it may not be possible to kill title inflation for a variety of reasons, both internal to a company (mostly ego and culture driven) or external to a company (most ego and power driven), if you are a CEO, don’t let it confuse you when you think about who is doing what in your company.