The first time I heard a receptionist called Director of First Impressions, I found it charming. The 40th time I found it cloying. I'm also not fond of Chief Happiness Officer (for HR managers), variations on Evangelist, or any title that incorporates the words Ninja or Guru. Don't get me wrong: I'm a fan of humor in the workplace. But such appellations strike me as whimsy overkill.
Other titles I find less objectionable. I'm OK with Chief Talent Scout for HR people who actually spend most of their time recruiting. VP of Buzz passes muster in companies that rely heavily on social networking. The fantastic-literature nerd in me still thinks Webmaster is kinda cool.
There are also a few titles I'd like to see companies adopt. Not because they are especially clever, but because they represent roles from which I believe most businesses could benefit. Here's a sampling:
Thought Leader. Industries and societies have thought leaders; so why not companies? Maybe it's a title for the founder who hands off operation of the business to a professional CEO so he can blue-sky the future. Maybe it's the scary-brilliant vice president or technician whose brain is forever making wild-sounding connections that turn out to be revelations. Maybe it's an add-on for the CEO who understands the trajectory of her industry the way Simon Schama understands art history. The thought leader's job is to inspire the troops with possibilities and to engage them in a vigorous—ideally intellectually rigorous—discussion of their role in the industry and the world.
Reality Check. In the 1990s, one or two large companies bestowed on an employee the unofficial title "court jester"—a reference to King Lear's fool who, alone among the monarch's followers, was free to speak the truth. Lear's fool cloaked his criticisms in wit and wordplay; but clarity is a better practice for the average manager. The reality check's job is to weigh in with absolute candor on every important plan, idea, or opinion voiced by the company's leadership. His performance is evaluated based on legitimate objections raised and estimations of ill-considered actions avoided. Ideal candidates will possess the unbridled enthusiasm of a Ben Stein.
Competitor Proxy. Some technology companies retain the services of super-hackers to probe for weaknesses in their products and security. But vulnerabilities extend outside the tech sector and beyond software and systems. Companies could learn much by charging someone to study them through the eyes of a competitor. The competitor proxy would perform basic tests like shopping the company's stores and Web site with a critical eye and searching online commentary for criticisms to exploit. But she would also assess her employer strategically, concocting schemes to torpedo its new-product launch or lure away its top designer. Her search for ways to blow it out of the water could even lead to ideas for market breakthroughs. By inculcating a defensive mindset, the competitor proxy ensures her employer isn't caught pants-down when a real competitor bursts through the door.
Father/Mother Confessor. Probably there was never a point where Jerome Kerviel was tempted to knock sheepishly on the door of his boss at Societe Generale and say, "I've been making billions in unauthorized trades and I'm starting to think maybe it wasn't the best idea. Do you have any suggestions?" No employee wants to own up to a mistake, or to not understanding something, or to the feeling that he can't handle parts of his job. Ideally he confides in his manager, but some managers are intimidating and unsympathetic. So the employee tries to muddle through on his own until the iceberg looms and he ends up at the bottom of the Atlantic. A confessor is someone at the managerial or executive level whom employees can consult if they feel uncomfortable talking to their managers. The conversation remains confidential unless the subject is illegal, unethical, or adversely affects someone else in the organization. The confessor advises the employee and helps him make a plan to fix the situation. And if the confessor notices many employees sidestepping a particular manager, he can take action to prevent a different kind of shipwreck.