Nobody does a better job than The Economist at skewering the excesses and absurdities of organizational life. In a recent issue, the magazine’s Schumpeter columnist took aim at the rampant inflation of job titles in companies and governments around the world.
The winner, by a mile, was North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who, according to The Economist, has 1,200 official titles, “including roughly translated, guardian deity of the planet, ever-victorious general, and lodestar of the 21st century.” Memo to President Obama: “Leader of the Free World” seems downright lame compared with “supreme commander at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and the United States”–not to mention my personal favorite, “greatest man who ever lived.”
Kim Jong Il can add King of Job-Title Inflation to his ever-increasing list of titles, but, according to The Economist, he’s just a world-class master of a worldwide phenomenon. CB Richard Ellis, the real-estate giant, has not one but four different CEOs. The c-suite in general is getting bigger and bigger, as Chief Information Officers welcome in Chief Knowledge Officers and (at Kodak) a Chief Listening Officer as well as (at SAP) a Chief Sustainability Officer. Even lower-ranking employees are getting loftier-sounding titles, from “sandwich artists” at Subway to cleaning companies who employ “sanitation consultants.”
It’s hard not to laugh along with the magazine–but it’s also possible to overlook the serious side of why it matters how people describe what they do and how organizations describe what gets done. Indeed, as I read the magazine column, I immediately thought back to the early days of Fast Company, and what was by far the most popular recurring feature in the magazine–two small nuggets in every issue that had the most passionate following of anything we published. The feature was called “Job Titles of the Future,” in which we found ordinary people doing real work with official titles that were decidedly out-of-the-ordinary.
For example, Ernst & Young, the accounting giant, employed a 20-something consultant in the role of Minister of Comedy. His job was to prepare videos and presentations for big client meetings that made the firm’s dry-as-dust work easier to swallow. One fast-growing telecom company chose to call the receptionist at headquarters its Director of First Impressions, to reinforce how seriously this tech-driven outfit was about the quality of its emotional and psychological to customers, suppliers. One videogame developer looked to its Chief Acceleration Officer to search for ways to slash development times and turn the organization into a, well, faster company.
It’s easy to make fun of these titles, but when we talked to the people who held them, you could feel their sense of ownership of, engagement with, and excitement about their jobs–and the offbeat titles that described their jobs. Their work truly mattered to them, and how their work got described to the world mattered as well.
That’s why I’m not quite so cynical about the proliferation of slightly offbeat (and even sometimes inflationary) job titles. People do their best work when they do work they love–which means it’s work that somehow connects with their unique skills, talents, and passions. Well, if the best jobs are the ones that aren’t cookie-cutter roles in plain-vanilla organizations, what’s wrong with breaking the mold when it comes to job titles? Would you rather be director of process improvement at a fast-growing software company, or, in the words of one job title of the future, Minster of Progress?
A few years back, when I wrote Mavericks at Work, I spent a lot time at a fabulous company called Cranium, which designed and sold some of the most popular board games in history. This outfit was obsessed with how it designed its products and how its creative vocabulary and its values-based culture connected with customers. The acronym behind everything it did was CHIFF: Clever, High Quality, Innovative, Friendly, Fun. So it made sense that one of the most important leaders at the company held the title CHIFF Champion–her job was to make sure that every element of the product-design process embraced the CHIFF sensibility. Another critical title at the company was that of “Keeper of the Flame”–an executive who looked after the strategy and the culture to make sure that as Cranium grew, it remained true to the values on which its success was built.
So the next time you meet someone with a slightly offbeat job title, feel free to raise an eyebrow. But then take a moment to look deeper. Maybe that unique title does a good job of capturing something special about the company this person works for or the job he or she does. And think about your own title: Does it get the job done in terms of describing what you do and how you want to be known?
Indeed, maybe it’s time to create your own Job Title of the Future. Just don’t go with “greatest man who ever lived.” I’m hoping to license North American rights from Kim Jung Il.
Reprinted from Harvard Business Review