Levels and Title

Levels and Title

Most startups want you to believe that they have a fundamentally unique culture. This makes each company special. The reality is that most startups subscribe to the same types of standard cultural norms for the workplace. They are just trying to sell you on it so that you will work harder for less pay and be more likely to stay at the company.

There is likely a whole string of posts on this topic. The various buzzwords that startups use to let you know how cool they are and why should work for them. Open concept workplace. Free games and toys. Money to outfit your desk. Lots of swag. Foosball. Beer and sodas. The list goes on.

I will point out that I am as guilty as any startup founder on this topic. Wallaby employed many of these tactics.

One that I have been thinking about lately is the idea that titles and levels don't matter. They do. There can be an extreme to them as well and that should be avoided, but pretending like they don't matter or they aren't important is usually something put forth by whomever has the title and the levels, which is the CEO.

When I worked at AT&T Interactive/Yellowpages.com we were a part of the overarching AT&T culture. With 288,000 employees at the time, AT&T had a huge culture of titles and levels. There were levels 1 (first supervisory) to 8 (the CEO of the entire corporation). It made some things very easy and clear. Want to sign a contract over $1MM? Call a level 6? Want to sign an NDA, call a level 3, etc.

At ATTi, we had a set of titles that were inflated to the AT&T levels. I don't know for sure why this was; I heard it had to do with the titles needed to hire the tech talent we had. For example, when I left ATTi I was an "Executive Director" which was a level 3. However, if you were an Executive Director in the rest of AT&T you would have been a level 4 (one level higher).

I know this because the day my promotion was announced I was in an AT&T office in Georgia and a level 4 there stopped by the office I was in to point out that I may be an Executive Director now, but I was only a 3, not a 4, like he was.

So that attitude and focus on levels is not good.

That said, I think it is very important for leaders and teams to understand reporting structures. Everyone needs a manager, right on up to the CEO, who is managed by the board of directors. Everyone needs to understand basic relationships and people desire and deserve titles fitting of their stature in the organization and their career progression.

From a career standpoint, these things don't have to go all up to the right over years. I have no issue with someone going down in title across jobs, especially in organizational size. I was the Chief Executive Officer at Wallaby; it was nine people. As a Chief Product Officer at Bankrate Credit Cards/creditcards.com I was a Senior Vice President. There were almost 200 people. At one level it can be looked at as a promotion; at another as a demotion. It all depends on your perspective.

That said, I do value my title. A lot of startups try to make people feel bad about this. It's as if it isn't cool; or that it shows you are shallow; or that it shows that you are old school.

We don't care about title here. What's important is the work.

Yes, the work is important. Probably the person saying this has a C-level title. So they do care about the title; they already have it. They are hoping you don't care, because they don't want to give it to you.

Because titles carry so much weight it is important to think carefully through them and to provide them to people as they deserve them and they take on a fitting role. I don't think that managers should dismiss someone's questions about titles or what the role is.

There is some nice in between that I seek to have; where you don't have people puffing up their chests about their numerical title level designation, but you also have respect for people to give them a title that fits their skills, talent, and role.