What Are Titles Good For?
One of my challenges when working with someone in transition is to encourage them to move away from “titles” as a focus and help them to see the bigger picture. Titles don’t immediately translate to skills or value. They often are labels that far too many people take for granted as a reason to believe someone has done something reflected by their title, when under closer scrutiny, it is learned they have not.

Aug 2014 Blog - TitlesThe dot-com bust was indicative of how many people had lofty titles but in many cases were simply self-proclaimed “leaders” with little connection to the actual scope of work that a title might reflect. Without the context (budget, size of team, territory covered, business segment), a title doesn’t automatically translate to value to the next business. A person may ultimately call themselves anything they want, but if what they have done and what they can do don’t translate to what is needed by the new employer or the new customer, then it is likely that disappointment will follow.

It’s tough to make a transition when the focus is on titles. Examining the “work” someone does rather than what they are called can lead to far more opportunities to discover new or different directions. It exposes skills that may be easily transferred, and it presents new pictures of what can be fun and new, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater or spending a fortune on brand new skill building.

Too often people are swayed by Internet statistics connecting salary data to titles that may in fact represent work that is far different from what the candidate imagines. A “project manager” or “program manager” in one industry or in one sector may be completely different from what the same title reflects in a different industry or sector. The compensation details may also reflect unrealistic or unattainable circumstances for a specific person’s skill set, experience and actual capabilities. The qualifier here is that even “skills” may read the same on two people’s resumes, but how they are manifested can be entirely different.

So, what does this mean to a job seeker or an employer reading a resume, or even to a consumer seeking the assistance of a professional? It means that each person needs to be fully aware of the context of their needs or expectations. Research can be done to determine when a “title” actually reflects the work that is needed or if it is something entirely different from what is expected or needed. Beginning with a reporter’s five key questions (what, where, when, why and how) and combining the answers with insight into someone’s motivation can produce considerably more information than titles, current compensation or costs of services.

Where, what, when. Context and scope can (and most likely will) change the value of a person’s role and relevance of their experience: the industry, size of company, number of direct reports, budget, specific years and geographic location. The types of customers a businessperson has been involved with and the economic conditions they have worked in may also influence their expertise and competence.

What and how. If you are a job seeker, it’s important to find out exactly what the actual work will entail. If you are thinking of changing roles, ask someone in the role you are considering to describe their work and whom they interact with. Be prepared to provide an employer with concrete examples of relevant work to illustrate your skills. If you are seeking help from a business, you may want to ask the service provider to describe their typical clients and the services they have offered others to determine how successful their services will be for you.

Why. Asking an employer about their greatest challenges may help produce insight into information that is unpublished in a job description. Alternately, asking a candidate to describe their goals may also reveal information that contradicts information found on their resume. Service providers may have websites that define why they do what they do, but if not, it is a reasonable question to ask. The answer to any version of “why do you do what you do?” is a good indicator of someone’s investment in continuing in the same direction or why they might be driven to do good work. An incomplete or vague response can reflect apprehension or lack of commitment, which can also lead to less-than-satisfactory results.

Proof. Make sure that all that you think is true is true. Look for published information and listen for unpublished information. Ask for references. If you are a job seeker, talk to employees who are currently working for a company and employees who previously worked for the organization. Balance the answers you get with what you need and want, using your perspective about what is most important.

Overall, don’t be fooled by titles or by smoke and mirrors. You’re making an investment that is important to you, no matter which side of the fence you are on. Make it a good one.