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What’s in a name? The quest for odd job titles

January 30, 2012

This topic has burned on my mind for a while now, and after a handful of back and forth twitter posts about the subject with Suzy, a Social Media Strategist from one of the larger Internet publishers, I decided to put fingers to keyboard (the new age equivalent of pen to paper).

I’ll start out by admitting it loud and proud – coming from a formal business background, it’s really difficult to find credibility in the host of new-age entrepreneurs who insist on using ‘cool’ words in their job titles. I don’t care how good your product, strategy, advice, or bank balance may be – it instantly removes any credibility you might have had as a serious business person.

Sadly, my observation is also that these individuals don’t know who they are, even if they’re reading this. So to be clear, I’m talking to all the technology and social media ninjas, jedis, mavens, gurus and self-proclaimed experts out there.

It seems to be something instigated by Gen Y, an attempt perhaps to showcase themselves as approachable, down to earth, genuine, and for larger companies, it’s often tied to employer branding – letting potential employees know that your workplace is a fun place to work.

The thing I’ve most learnt about creativity over the years though is that it’s not good enough to be creative just for the sake of getting attention. It’s actually got to have some relevance and meaning. This applies in the world of advertising, marketing, and just about any form of human communication. If the message doesn’t have meaning and relevance – then it’s open to interpretation. In this case, my interpretation of such job titles is – they’re just not effective in building your credibility in the real world!

On the other hand, equally irritating are the sole-traders, normally business consultants of one form or another, who insist on ensuring they have onerous titles like CEO, General Manager, Managing Director and other lofty, formal titles on their business card. This is done in the hope that they’ll establish some credibility with companies that are seeking experience and stability in their suppliers.

Before you ask – I actually don’t have a title; it’s part of the gig of being a business generalist I guess. When you’re able to work cross-functionally and advise any member of your management team how to improve performance and productivity within their own area of expertise – it doesn’t matter what your title is, because your value to the organisation is mutually understood.

I don’t recall any of my favourite entrepreneurs giving themselves silly job title over the years – Bill Gates was always just the Microsoft guy, Larry and Sergey were geeky as all hell but were never ‘ninjas’ or ‘gurus’, Richard Branson was just Richard Branson. The list goes on.

I can also recall numerous experiences with Senior Executives who have played down their title and rank in order to ensure they were approachable and credible:

    • One of my first business mentors, a regional GM in Rural Press which later took over Fairfax Media, on his 2nd day in office after removing the senior management of the organisation, proclaimed he was not the new boss, but ‘Honest Ken, the worker’s friend’. He was constantly interacting with and listening to the people around him to make sound business decisions at every level.
    • I later had the good fortune to interact on numerous occasions with Brian McCarthy, then CEO of Rural Press and a manager whom I still admire and base many of my management and leadership principles on. He was on the dancefloor at a national sales conference one year, when one of our most senior sales executives approached him right in front of me and asked him who he was, and what he did. He looked at myself and my colleague, smiled winked and said “Brian. And not much.” The sales rep had a good laugh at this guy who didn’t do much, and the look on her face the next morning when he took to the podium and shared the story with everyone was priceless.
    • Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, head of Fortescue Metals and formerly Australia’s wealthiest man, is renowned for being ‘one of the boys’ and playing down his title and rank within his company. Last time I read about him he still drove an old beat up Mercedes and I had the pleasure of sitting across the aisle from him in economy class on a flight once. Really nice guy, spoke to other passengers and generated immediate respect from all. No need for job titles here.
    • And finally, the most impressive business card I’ve ever been handed by someone I’ve met was simply a name and a phone number. It said: “John B Fairfax” and had a phone number on it.Why would you need anything else if people already knew exactly what you were all about?

The point of all this is – job titles are not what matters. What you do, what you know, the experience you bring to the table and how you conduct yourself is far more important. Calling yourself a ninja or a guru or a jedi or a maven just doesn’t put real business people at ease that you can help drive their business to profitability and ensure their kids get fed.

That’s only my perception, and for the most part – the people I know who have such titles – have all been brave enough to go out on their own, start their own businesses, and have varying levels of success with their client base. So if you’re reading this, don’t take it as a personal attack. But as you might have picked up from the examples listed above, the best business people I’ve ever met take heed of the advice and feedback from a lot of different people – and if you want to be taken seriously in the business world – even during the coming of age of Generation Y and the millenials – give it some thought. Opinions and debate welcomed in the comments below!

Deliriant Isti Romani – These Romans are Crazy!

Late addition: just to add to the mix, here’s a graphic someone sent me from the ‘toothpaste for dinner’ comic website:


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