Title Inflation Emerges With A Vengence

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.

  •  It’s a shame that inflated titles matter, particularly in the hiring process.  Those who don’t play the game risk being screened out during a resume review, particularly because most companies still suck badly at hiring.

    A former employer of mine has almost 50% of its staff with Director titles or higher.  Titles are free, and freely given.

    • ‘Yikes!’ on your example of a company w/ so many Director level and higher.

  • People spend too much time tending to their title rather than actually getting work done. Some of them don’t even know what they are supposed to be doing (even when there title is three letters and starts with a C). They don’t have a clearly defined role. “Head of …” sounds like a great idea which should put things into perspective. It also may help people discover who is truly pulling there own weight. Some people are heads of many different things, but you would never know by looking at their title.

  • Jen G

    Good post. I’m seeing this on so many resumes and it often just doesn’t make sense other than inflation of title. The other challenge is that with this comes salary inflation which I’ve been seeing a lot of as well in the past 4-6 months. Makes recruiting a bit trickier.

  • Peter

    I like the “head-of” metaphor.  I encourage everyone to ignore titles and adopt this mentality.  And by the same token, if titles are indeed meaningless to you, don’t be annoyed by people who want a better title.  Because titles aren’t meaningless to employees.  Employees have to worry about their future prospects as employees, because that’s how they feed their families.  As long as professional recruiters play a role in the job market, titles will matter.  Even most hiring managers still respect to titles.

    People truly need good titles to market themselves, and title-demoting someone to “manager” or “associate” out of some enlightened sense of corporate-hierarchy-truth is only going to hurt the employee… and it won’t benefit the company.

    • Interesting (and very human) reply. I appreciated you sharing your view.

    • I completely agree. Unfortunately company politics can get in the way. Changing someone’s title to ‘Director’ instead of ‘Manager’ can ignite the anger/envy of people in a completely different area of the company who would want the same thing, even if the criteria for doing so is substantially different.

    • I like the “head of” metaphor as well; unfortunately, our company is only three people.  Once your “head of” list runs more than few lines, the exercise becomes less useful.

  • On a similar note, it’s good to see many people preferring to use the title ‘Founder’/’Co-founder’ and not necessarily ‘CEO’ for very early-stage companies where titles are almost irrelevant, given the wide amount of different tasks and different areas of responsibility each person tends to have.

    • Totally agree.

    • The titles we use at our startup are entirely outward facing — data architect, web architect, designer.  If you want to work with our API, talk to the web architect; you want to share data, talk to the data architect.  The only exception is mine — I’m the founder / data architect — which hopefully indicates I’m the business person as well…

      • This is a great approach.

  • James Mitchell

    I like titles. If someone tells me they are Chief Technology Officer of ABC company, then I have certain expectations about how much responsibility they have, what they can decide by themselves, and what they should presumably know and are good at. So if I meet a CTO, I assume he has the technical smarts to decide, for example, what kind of routers to install and he has the authority to make that decision. If this turns out not the case, then either the company is screwed up or he is not very good (which means the company is screwed up because they hired someone who is not very good to be their CTO).

    Titles are an important form of communication. I used to buy companies and the lenders would often say, “they need a new CFO.” My response was typically, “Look, it’s a $40 million manufacturing company. They will do one financial transaction every 3 years. They don’t need a CFO at all, they just need a good Controller. I will handle the external financial stuff when it is necessary.” Hiring a CFO would have been a mistake, in part because of the extra salary expense but even more importantly, a true CFO would get bored. There is an important distinction between a Controller (inward looking) and a CFO (who can handle external financial transactions), and titles save everybody a lot of time.

    My partner and I were discussing the difference between a CTO and a CIO, and why a startup does not want a CIO but does want a CTO. CTOs are more hands on and are expected to be more technical. A CIO is more of a managerial role and it might be OK if they are not a technical genius if they organization is large enough and the CIO has good technical staff or a good outside consulting firm. Lack of a technical genius in a CTO would be a disaster. Titles save everybody a lot of time, assuming people understand the difference.

    You have to look at titles in context. At a traditional big company, such as Dell or Microsoft, someone who has the title of Vice President of X usually has a fair amount of executive authority. At a commercial or investment bank,  someone with a title of Vice President is someone who has demonstrated a certain level of competence and who has no decision making authority at all. At an investment bank, if you are talking to anyone less than a Managing Director, you can be certain they have no clout.

    Titles can be a signaling mechanism concerning how you view your employees. In the old days at IBM (I am dating myself), sales reps were called “Marketing Representative.” Did they do any marketing? No, they sold. But IBM was signaling to its customers, “We hire really smart people out of college, train them for a year, and our sales reps are simply a lot more professional than our competiton.” In IBM’s case that was true, the term “former IBM marketing rep” meant you were looking for someone good.

    I have met some people whose business cards are something stupid, such as “Happiness Officer.” I find this annoying because rather than spending 3 seconds parsing their title and then having a reasonably good idea of what they do, I have to spend 5 minutes hearing what they do and then putting it into some category.

    It’s real easy to figure how silly Brad’s idea. Substitute title for words/roles. Do we need words at all? There is a distinction between a VC and an angel investor (albeit it has gotten more confusing over time). Should we stop using labels such as VC? So Brad would not go around saying he is a VC, instead each time he would provide a 10 minute description of what he does. I suspect Brad would not be very happy doing that. Same with the label blogger, is that one we should eliminate?

    We need more titles, ones that are accurate. If you’re complaining about inaccurate titles rather than title inflation, then you’ve on to something. But I see nowhere in Brad’s post that the titles he is complaining are inaccurate. To the extent that making someone Chief Bottle Washer means he will totally own the responsibility of getting the bottles washed, that is a good thing.

    • Rich

      So, using titles boils down to laziness. “I’m CEO. You figure it out.” I would like everyone to ask me what I do. And I’ll be glad to provide that 10 minute description. 

  • Rich

    Titles and past performance are only good for self promotion. What’s the wall street saying “Past performace does not predict future results.” Who cares what someone did yesterday? The only thing that matters is what they’re going to do next. The only thing that matters in determining what they’ll do next is their current mindset. What someone believes they can do is ALL important, not what title they had yesterday or what they did yesterday. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow will be completely different and what worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow.
    Forget the rules! I think the failure rate of startups is 70%+. Think about that. The rules have given us consistent failure of 70% or more. Keep in mind you’ll need to get out of bed today, just like yesterday. But, focusing on what was done yesterday is the first step to failure. Focusing on what a person is going to do (as you said), is great. But focusing on what they did is going to work against you.
    Focusing only on what a person will do next helps eliminate two big gotcha’s. First, you won’t miss out on the next “surprise” winner. Second, if a person is focused on their past, they aren’t preparing for the future.

    • Rich

      BTW, I like connecting with other entrepreneurs/investors/thinkers.

      rich.emailz [at] gmail 

  •  The Economist had a piece on title inflation in their “Schumpeter” column recently:


    “The snag is that the familiar problems of monetary inflation apply to job-title inflation as well. The benefits of giving people a fancy new title are usually short-lived. The harm is long-lasting.” … “The essence of inflation, after all, is that it devalues everything that it touches.”

    … and a short continuation:


  • Interesting info. Thanks for it.

  • Thank you for writing this, Brad. I was recently talking with an early stage startup and had to repress my snicker when they introduced themselves as CEO, CTO and COO. If it’s just three of you, you’re probably not “chief” or “officer”. My druthers: identify your functional area (“tech guy”) and don’t worry about the corporate management structure until you have enough employees to justify the effort.

  • We think in functional terms when we hire regardless. When you build teams you always start with what needs to be taken care and who is responsible for what.

    Titles come late and are usually affixed to comp in traditional orgs. And yes, the get in the way as they get greyer and greyer, and often less effective.

    Of course, this is easier in the start-up, sub $1-200M companies where the decision making tree is somewhat obvious.  Can’t imagine the chaos if you went through and did this for a media company, someplace like Disney 😉

  • Brad — Ben Horowitz wrote a blog entry on this subject recently:
    http://bhorowitz.com/2011/03/17/titles-and-promotions/. He didn’t judge so much as offer two opposing views. One from his partner Mark Andreessen vs. that of Mark Zuckerberg. Summary from Andreessen’s camp is that if you are a typical startup and can’t pay FMV, then you have to over-title. If you are a hot desirable company/startup, then you can fight title inflation (in short b/c you can).

    The reality is that titles are important to people. We all know that. Not just the title with the current company, but with the next company and the next position. Sure people see through title inflation and we continue to do it. But that’s the risk – reward relationship for this market space. It’s a soft currency that a startup can afford.

  • I work at Zynga and just received my business cards. I chose not to have a title because if you’re good you can level up here quickly, but more importantly, the title conveys product ownership level versus rank and file.

    • “you can level up here quickly” – love that!

  • In this world people care a lot about titles. What you said about being the “head of X” is something new and refreshing.

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  • Very true.  Had recent encounter with someone with title of Senior Project Manager, but readily admits that they have no project management experience or training.  Strikes me as a dangerous game and ultimately does no one any good.  It inflates expectations of the employee, those working with him/her and any future employer.  Only result is disappointment all around.

    The proposed exercise seems like a good one.  In all honesty, there are a few people who I am left with the card still saying “head of ?”.

  • Dave

    The only title I really want is “Founder.”

  • Pete VanSon

    I once was a founder in a software development firm. We tried having no titles on business cards. According to those senior management who were title conscious (and characteristically insecure), it confused the customers. According to those senior management who didn’t care about titles, it was fine. Unfortunately, the CEO was a member of the former group and won out.

    I have been a CEO of a business that had 45 employees and thought the title was inflated, at the small business level, but didn’t want to drag up that old argument (see above) so I went with titles.

    Currently, I lead my company as President (old school) and really don’t even introduce myself as that.

  • call it inflation… call it over-emphasis, I think you’re driving at a similar point. I also think you’re being idealistic. from your POV, you see many companies, many org structures and patterns. as a result, you abstract that experience, and “head of…” is that abstraction. it’s a great one of course, but in the “real world,” in the trenches with recruiting/hiring against competitors, individual dynamics, beliefs, it’s often not that easy.

    the dynamics around why someone wants a specific title are of course very important, but as much as we’d all like to normalize it and wash it out, that’s very hard to do in practice (other than just waving the magic wand and saying “no-one has a title anymore” being itself easy. the ramifications of that aren’t so straightforward). we all have our quirks; title desire/need/want can certainly be one of them.

    the resume/cv is still, like it or not, the canonical descriptor of a person’s career. in order to assimilate *some* commonality, and/or to see how someone wants to be perceived (which in and of itself is of course very telling), we have to pattern match with monikers (e.g. titles) to try to understand something about someone quickly. this of course can drive someone to inflate. anyone wanting to chime in here with “no, the publicly written code that someone has published is the descriptor of their career,” yea, I get that don’t bother, that’s another post, I’m speaking in generalities here.

    titles can be real issues/sticking points for some people. just as you may be willing to give someone a purple chair if they want that in order to join your firm, because they’re a great hire, you may be willing to give them whatever title they want in order to get them in the door.

    internally we’re all “engineers” or “in marketing” or “heads of sales.” externally, it gets more challenging.

    I’m not going to pass on an incredible candidate because they have some hangup on title (unless the roots of that hangup are a real issue)… I’ll give them the purple chair.

    • I agree that as CEO you have to deal with this in a non-idealistic
      way. And – if culturally you are willing to let title inflation settle
      in to your structure, that’s up to you.

      However, I’ll give you two counter examples of very large companies
      (that were once small) where the title dynamics are very different.

      1. Google: minimal title inflation. In fact, most people are
      undertitled and the titles are functional. Many “PM’s” have gone on to
      be CEO’s of companies. When they acquire a company, the most coveted
      non-engineering title is PM.

      2. IBM: If you’ve ever seem someone’s title on a resume that worked at
      IBM, you actually have no idea what they’ve done. The titles
      completely obscure roles and often overstate experience. This is true
      of many large companies, but IBM is one of the worst. At least at
      Microsoft you know that “VP” means about the same that it does at an
      investment bank (e.g. not very much).

      So – in my little corner of the universe, Google has done an
      extraordinary job with this and IBM / MIcrosoft have contributed to
      endless title inflation.