Every week, HBO commentator John Oliver skewers the pretentious and the ridiculous on his show, "Last Week Tonight." His most recent target was International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach's high-falutin' rhetoric at Rio's opening ceremonies. "In this Olympic world," Bach proclaimed, "we are all equal." Oliver, however, wasn't buying it. "The whole reason we do this," he said of the Olympics, "is to find out who is better than everyone else so that we can make them stand higher (on the platform) than other people." And give Moms around the world something to brag about, I might add.
The Olympic athletes themselves--minus the dopers--are fun to watch in their quest for "individual excellence," as Oliver said. But I agree that this whole two-week medal chase doesn't represent an egalitarian vision as much as it does the same jockeying for position that goes on every day in virtually every human activity. In the business world, one particularly bothersome place it reveals itself is in job titles. Earlier this year I thought, Let's just eliminate them entirely. Turns out, I underestimated how hard it is to mess with some people's measure of success.
First of all, let me just say that I recognize the value of titles in situations such as the military, where you often have to take orders from people you don't know. And my goal in getting rid of them had nothing to do with holacracy; our managers play valuable and necessary roles, and I rely on them. But in a growing and collaborative company like ours, I see job titles as limiting and irrelevant. Here's another way to look at it: When you manufacture ceiling fans, as we do, you spend a lot of time explaining the concept of destratification. In the fan world, it means eliminating the different temperature strata or layers to create a uniform, more comfortable temperature throughout. I see doing away with job titles as achieving the same thing --eliminating the layers and creating an environment where anyone can try anything and grow. And if that sounds altruistic and high-falutin', well of course I always envision employees' growth as contributing to the company's growth.
Long ago we did away with status-boosting offices in favor of an open floor plan, and our employees take on new roles all the time. We don't hire people based solely on past work experience, and once they're here we urge them to explore areas outside the job they were hired to do. Just because someone was brought on to program fans on the assembly line or answer phones in customer service doesn't mean they can't be in quality control or sales a year later --or even product development--if that's where their interest lies. So who needs labels? As SNL's Frankenstein might say, Labels ... bad--unless you want to call yourself the Archduke of Propaganda or the Grand Poobah of Purchasing. Those kind I heartily endorse.
So how did our best-laid plan to banish job titles go awry? It wasn't the Human Resources Department that was the obstacle--they found a way to write around them when it came to hiring, salary negotiations and promotions. And many of our other employees were onboard. In fact, quite a few don't use titles now. But ultimately, it was just more trouble than it was worth to institute an across-the-board policy because it would have upset too many apple carts. I hadn't reckoned on the number of people who want the benchmark and structure that a title can give and the message it conveys to the rest of the world.
That last point --what I might call the Mom factor--may have, in fact, doomed the plan from the start. Whether it's with a fancy new job title or a shiny Olympic medal, everyone wants to show Mom that they're moving up in life, and there's just no competing with Mom. I wouldn't dream of it.
In case you're wondering if all this title talk applies to me, well, for years I've simply been Chief Big Ass. It doesn't impose any limits; in fact it encourages me to reach my full potential. Personally, I feel it suits me quite well.