Something really scary happened to me. I flew to England to give a speech. And on the way there, while on the plane, I had a panic attack.
It's not that I'm afraid of flying. No, I had the attack because I'm afraid of going through Customs. Now, I've never tried to smuggle anything in my life, and my passport is in fine order. But I've always had this phobia about being unjustly incarcerated by an uncaring bureaucrat in a foreign country. That's the main reason why I've never torn one of those tags off of a mattress or pillow. I mean, there are rats in prisons! Anyway, this time, my fear was the result of something slightly more rational: a form. This was no ordinary form; it was an official government document.
The form wasn't that big — maybe about four inches by six inches. It asked for a bunch of rudimentary information, such as my name and address. But on the reverse side of the form, in tiny writing, near the bottom of the page, was a word that struck absolute terror in my heart: "occupation."
Suddenly, I was beset by doubts and fears, uncertainties and unanswerables! I felt a new-economy identity crisis looming. What am I? The government of the United Kingdom wanted to know. It was insisting on knowing. And if I supplied the wrong answer, if I lied on the form, who knew what would happen? I could spend years rotting in the basement of some prison, eating porridge for breakfast, and bangers and mash for dinner.
Am I a writer? An entrepreneur? A typesetter? A traveling salesman? A public speaker? An accountant (though an admittedly poor one)? A marketer? I could go on and on. On any given day, I probably have 15 or 20 "occupations."
That's when it hit me: The world is changing. The days of "milkman," "mailman," and "soldier" are pretty much gone. Most of the people I know and work with would have had just as much trouble as I had with the occupation question (although I don't think that any of them would have had a panic attack).
What are you?
Does clinging to an occupation make you better at your job? Does it make it easier for you to identify the folks you'd like to work with, the people who can help you do your job — or does it just obfuscate things and drag you into meetings that you shouldn't be in? Or does it supply an employment security blanket, a comfortable totem from the old economy that you can carry with you to give you a sense — genuine or false — of stability? Or, even worse, do you use your title as a shield, so that when people ask you for help, you can say, "Sorry, that's not my job"?
I wish we had better titles: "the person responsible for buying Internet advertising that really works," or "the one person at this company who can approve your invoice." Think about how much time you'd save if you didn't have to fend off people whose needs don't match your job title. Even better, think of how much you and your company would gain if your inappropriate title didn't keep you from doing the stuff that you're actually supposed to be doing. Or take it one step further: What if, instead of a job title, you had a "job entitle"— which came with a sticker that you could apply to projects and opportunities that you'd be really good at, if only you had a pass card to gain admittance to them?
While we're at it, what is your job description? Is it a hopeful, optimistic, powerful document that gives you permission to explore new opportunities and to get something done? Or is it a defensive shield that makes it easy for you to identify what's not your job? Companies that don't have any employees who have the phrase "increase our international presence" in their job description rarely take the time and risks necessary to develop an international presence. Organizations that provide their employees with carefully worded job descriptions are giving them permission to ignore excellent business opportunities, and in doing so, are losing out every day.
Here's a true story: I once went on a sales call to offer one particular company a media opportunity that was guaranteed to increase its sales. If sales didn't increase, the company would owe nothing. The company's five biggest competitors had already signed up, but this firm — the sixth company in the industry oligopoly — was resisting the opportunity. I finally got a meeting with the vice president, who, I was informed, was in charge of this sort of thing.
The meeting was a success. The VP loved the idea. He agreed that it would increase his company's sales, and he was scared to death that his company would be left out, while all of his competitors would be included.
But as we finished talking, he looked at me quite sadly and said, "Even though this is exactly what we need, I can't buy it."
Crushed, I asked him why not.
"Because," he told me, "my job description doesn't allow me to buy media aimed at the small-business market." Anticipating my follow-up question, he added, "And as far as I can tell, there isn't anyone in the company who does have the authority to spend money on something like this. And frankly, given the way that this place works, it's just not worth calling a meeting and hashing out whose budget this project would come out of."
While we're on the subject of failed bureaucracies, inert organizations, and brain-dead "corpocracies," why don't big companies publish their org charts and phone directories? Put 'em online, I say. A vice president at IBM once spent a full hour drawing an org chart for me, in an attempt to make her company more accessible, because she realized that a fortress mentality wasn't good for IBM. Of course, as soon as she'd finished drawing the two-page chart, IBM announced a re-org. So much for making it easy to do business with IBM.
The other day, out of boredom, I engaged in one of my favorite hobbies: I called Microsoft at 425-882-8080. "Hello," I said. "Could you please tell me the name and extension of the person who's in charge of marketing Windows 2000?" (Note: That person's name is not much of a secret. A quick Web search will get you what you need.)
"I'm sorry, sir. I can't divulge that sort of information," a courteous but officious receptionist responded, as if I were the first person ever to have the audacity to ask for such private information. It was as if I'd asked her for the Windows source code, rather than for a marketer's name and extension.
Here's the New Economy Customs Form Question of the Month: What sorts of bad things would happen if every vendor, every analyst, every customer, and, yes, even every headhunter knew exactly who did what, why, and how — at Microsoft or at your company? What would be the big deal if your occupation were trumpeted far and wide?
One of the reasons that we hesitate to make such information readily available has to do with fear. But that's a story for another day. An equally important reason is that in our fast-moving, very flexible world, any org chart would be obsolete the day before it was printed. Or, alternatively, the very act of getting an org chart done in the first place would probably require so much internal soul-searching and politicking that it might never get written.
But how can a company be fast if everyone on the team doesn't know who's in charge of what? How can a company be permeable to the outside world if the outside world doesn't know whom to talk to? Is it really possible to create a system of rapid, informal communication that keeps all parts of an organization in sync? When an invoice comes in, you route it to the guy in accounts payable, because that's his occupation. But whose job is it to decide whether using MP3 technology to improve customer satisfaction is a good idea?
Which leads us right back to where we started. The chances that you have just one occupation are slim. And rather than pretend that we all have just one occupation — as the British government seems so intent on doing — maybe we ought to embrace the "multipational" nature of our jobs. ("Multipational" is a new word that I've invented. It means "having more than one occupation at a time"; it's the workplace equivalent of "multinational.") We could each pick a new, all-purpose title that signals what we're really focused on — titles such as "customer joy specialist," or "change agent," or perhaps even "gal who will take a meeting and then work the organization."
It's not silly. It's about communicating — to your peers, to the outside world, and to yourself — what you really do all day.
I'm proud to say that after some soul-searching, I took pen in hand and wrote, "Dad, Husband, and Bald Guru in Search of Real Answers." Then, I squared my shoulders and handed over the Customs form. And I didn't even get busted.
Seth Godin (email@example.com) is permission-marketing yahoo! at Yahoo! His most recent book is "Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers" (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
A version of this article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.