Perennial pot-stirrer of the Big Tech scene Elon Musk announced in a 29 October tweet [1] that he had done away with his own honorifics on his company’s website, writing: “Deleted my Tesla titles last week to see what would happen. I’m now the Nothing of Tesla. Seems fine so far.” However, just a couple of hours later he slightly walked that statement back, adding: “Legally required officers of a corporation are president, treasurer & secretary. Guess I have to keep 1st one or it will confuse the authorities.” [2]

By then, though, the first tweet had already taken root in business commentators’ minds, and in a 1 November think piece for Forbes, Jack Kelly – founder of US headhunting agency Compliance Search Group – sided with Musk, offering a fulsome critique of job titles as sacred cows in the corporate universe. [3]

Kelly notes: “An unpleasant by-product of titles is being assigned an undignified and embarrassing title,” such as ‘compliance analyst level III’. “On the other side of the spectrum,” he argues, “titles have reached peak pretentiousness, including chief evangelist, chief cheerleader, digital prophet, chief experience officer, brand warrior, chief amazement officer, chief idea ambassador, ringleader of creative operations, ambassador of buzz, oracle of inspiration, warlord of ingenuity…” and several other examples.

Meanwhile, he adds: “A grandiose title is a relic from a past era. An obnoxious title emblazoned on a heavy stock business card is as old fashioned as wearing a standard-uniform power suit comprised of a dark blue suit, starched white shirt, plain tie and gleaming black oxford shoes.” All in all, he notes: “There are few times that make sense to have a title.”

Musk’s tweets also piqued interest over at Quartz at Work, [4] with columnist Lila MacLellan writing that they chimed in her mind with a recent talk by top Thinkers50 influencer Roger Martin, who urged firms to get rid of ‘jobs’, and instead give each employee a ‘portfolio of projects’. MacLellan writes: “Rather than jump from title to title, climbing a hierarchy and accumulating ‘senior’ and ‘director’ accolades along the way, ‘You’ll know that you’ve advanced because you’re tackling trickier projects,’ [Martin said] ‘and your compensation would naturally reflect this.’” Martin also argued that large organisations should be run as though they are professional services firms.

So – are job titles starting to look somewhat passé?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Interestingly, when we rebranded and separated from the City & Guilds-based, qualifications part of the Institute, we decided not to have job titles on our business cards. And we still don’t. That was a recognition of how quickly titles become outdated. Especially for us: when we were in the process of forming a new and innovative organisation, they were seen as rather constraining.”

Cooper agrees that titles are somewhat outdated. “Part of the problem,” she notes, “is that they often don’t translate very well into signifiers of hierarchy or experience, because they’re not graded in the way that qualifications are – for example, you don’t have a Level 3 title that is universally applicable wherever you take it. When I first started out in my career, an early mentor of mine said, ‘Name ‘em high, pay ‘em low’ – by which I mean that’s what he’d observed as an organisational practice – it wasn’t something he was recommending! That really stuck with me: the notion that a title can be used in a somewhat superficial fashion as a non-financial reward.”

She adds: “I have certainly seen some curious titles out there. However, I’m wary of calling them ‘pretentious’, as a proportion of them would have been deliberately pitched as funny, quirky, interesting – and to some extent, a comment on the older and fustier approach to job titles. What this strongly reminds me of is a seminar I once attended where the headline question was: ‘What is the Point of You?’ If we can concisely sum up our jobs in terms of the value they add to our customers or colleagues, then that’s not only much more interesting to others than a hard-to-decipher title, but far likelier to keep us in touch with why we are there in the first place.”

For further thoughts on developing talent, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4] 

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