Job titles are irrelevant – what is your brand?

Increasingly, I’m convinced that corporate job titles are obsolete. Let’s face it – in many cases an individual can label themselves with any title, and it may or may not have any meaning either within the context of the organisation, or in comparison to similar companies. The head of a major corporation can be described as CEO, but Joe Normal can be CEO of his own one or two-man band company too. It’s perfectly valid. Many organisations have champions, evangelists… job titles are morphing (conversation architect? social media marketer?)

I’m frequently asked what I do, as if a title can cover and explain my role in a couple of words. The first answer is that I work for IBM. OK, but that’s a very wide field, if you know anything about the company – it could be something in hardware, software, consulting services, research, management. So I was then able to narrow it down by using the word “Consultant” – one of those titles so broad that it covers all kinds of activities. So then I’d say I’m a software consultant working with WebSphere Integration products for IBM in the UK. But, of course, that wasn’t everything I did, if you factored in my social software and virtual worlds “hats” and additional interests. Recently my formal job title has become even less useful in describing what I do to people outside the organisation.

IBM also has a formal professional development careers path linked to The Open Group and British Computer Society – in that, I’ve moved from being a Senior to a Consulting IT Specialist. Unless you know the structure of the profession, you may not know the difference between Senior and Consulting levels, or what an IT Specialist does in comparison to an IT Architect or Software Engineer or whatever else. “Consulting IT Specialist” is a reasonably useful label, but still doesn’t go far enough.

So if job titles are dead – what now? I’m finding that my personal brand as social bridgebuilder | photographer | techie is as useful a label or as a starting point for a discussion as anything. I recently updated my About page and moved my technical background further down the bio. As organisational structures shift and morph to new models (you should take a look at Gary Hamel’s excellent book The Future of Management to read more on this) it is becoming more important to maintain a personal brand – linked to a corporate identity – and to be able to explain what you do and can offer in a concise manner.

Storytelling. Visual CVs. Skills. The rise of the real-world avatar. Non-traditional ways of presenting oneself through tag clouds and visualisations. All of these things are replacing the job title. Don’t tell me your corporate title. Tell me who you are, and what you do.

Side thought: as I write this, and some of my other recent entries on paper, I ponder – am I a “writer”? a blogger, a writer of prose, an architect of ideas, or what?

Update #1: I realised, thanks to Paul’s rather brilliant point in the comments about context, that I should probably explain where this post came from. A couple of inspirations, really. Firstly, a couple of months ago I was talking to a colleague at work and he said “so what is it you do all day, social bridgebuilder or something?” and I had to explain that no, my day job is something specific and related to WebSphere software. Secondly, last week I was introduced on a conference call as having a “really cool job title” and again, I noted that it was James Governor who gave me the label / reputation as social bridgebuilder as a result of what I do, rather than it being a formal title.

Update #2: I’m interested in a couple of the related posts links that WordPress has put in for me. The first, Your Personal Brand IS NOT a Job Title, kind of makes the same point… I suppose… I suppose it is saying that job titles still have a relevance within the context of an organisation. The second, A Rose By Any Other Name, also has relevance here – I particularly liked the line When your staff are asked, outside work, what they do how easily can they simply quote their job title? which is something I’ve struggled with in the past. Nice work on the automatic links I think!

6 thoughts on “Job titles are irrelevant – what is your brand?”

  1. I have to agree with this completely. Job titles are increasingly irrelevant except within the context of the organisation which gives them. Outside of an organisational structure, it is far more about what you do and your experiences.

    An analogy would be that water is hydrogen and oxygen atoms joined together, but that doesn’t tell you it’s thirst quenching and vital for life on earth. It’s the difference between what it’s made of (e.g. a job title) and what it is (social bridgebuilder | photographer | techie).

    Me? I’m a strategist, consultant, techie, father, husband, former sportsman (!), christian, entrepreneur and a whole load of other things. Give me a context, and I’ll tell you which of those (and more) are appropriate for the conversation.

  2. Great blog! I also feel that job titles are irrelevant. At my last job, I was doing quasi online sales, web development, online marketing, etc. The HR person asked me what i wanted my official title to be! lol!

  3. I’ve been messy around with titles too. We seem to have lost our lexicon for describing work accurately.

    Two issues I think:
    a) Verb – baker – I bake (and add what for whom when where why how)
    b) Authority – what decision do you make that others in the organization cannot make. In organizations that is the key. What will the CEO defer to you because you are in the right place, the right time with the right resources and the right skills. What will s/he not agree to do until s/he has heard your opinion/recommendation/judgement?

  4. Back in the early 1980s Apple led the way with innovative job titles. A friend of mine was hired by them and was given the job title “Computer Nerd” – the idea was that he was going to be free to do whatever he saw fit and any more specific job title would be restrictive.

    He left Apple a few years later telling me that it was not the same since Wozniack left. I wonder if they still give people such wonderful job title.

  5. Well said Andy ! I am a Learning Facilitator ( Job title) in IBM however, i feel that it does not do justice to what all i do in IBM . For same reason, i call myself a Learning Professional . This is what wikipedia has to say for a professional. ( A ‘true’ professional must be proficient in all criteria for the field of work they are practising professionally in. Criteria include following:

    Academic qualifications – a doctoral or law degree – i.e., university college/institute
    Expert and specialised knowledge in field which one is practising professionally
    Excellent manual/practical and literary skills in relation to profession
    High quality work in (examples): creations, products, services, presentations, consultancy, primary/other research, administrative, marketing or other work endeavours
    A high standard of professional ethics, behaviour and work activities while carrying out one’s profession (as an employee, self-employed person, career, enterprise, business, company, or partnership/associate/colleague, etc.)

    Also , i am a Project owner, Project Manager, Lead, Thought Leader on Web 2.0, Blue IQ ambassador, Learning consultant, Learning developer , Trainer and a facilitator.
    How can one justify comprehensive nature of one’s work profile through just one title. So we have the concept of Pd Tool / Expertise Assessment in IBM .
    I am still in the process of merging my Personal Brand with Work Profile. It makes me think, this is one excellent way of tapping true employee potential ( HR thought process is on ) , Oh yes, my tilte last year was Organizational Development Lead ( HR) . More closer Personal Brand is to work profile more productive, effecient, effective that employee would be .

    My personal brand would be amateur photographer, avid reader, podcast listener, blog reader, Web 2.0 buff, traveller, philosopher , thinker so on …

  6. Nice post, I think sometimes people marvel at the myriad titles on our email footers. It is interesting to note though that if you have a specialism I think you often still need some kind of hook in your chosen title (or brand, indeed). If my brand is misaligned to the target audience it could do more harm to my credibility than good.

    For example, if I am paying a company a large amount of money for a specialist consultant in Widgets, and the person arrives and their introduction or title includes nothing to do with Widgets, that makes me trust them less, not more. I’m expecting that person to say “I am a Certified Widget Specialist” or similar — I may not know what that means in real terms, but it sounds credible.

    I guess what I am saying is that I think personal brand needs to be aligned to what one actually does in the context in which it’s used, as well as all of the other essential ingredients that make you you and add depth.

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