You may have heard the recent news that Tony Hsieh has ditched a traditional organization structure at Zappos in favor of a "Holacracy." Everyone at Zappos is now characterized as a "partner" working within one of 400 "circles." Personally, I'm not sure I get the Holacracy movement but it does bring up an interesting question: how are you using employee titles as a way to compete for talent and customers?
Big companies are stuck with a traditional organizational structure with rigid titles defining each rung on the ladder to the corner office. As an entrepreneur, being creative with employee titles is another way you can out-maneuver your larger competitors. Here are six creative ways to use employee titles to your advantage:
1. Adjective Up
Titles like Customer Service "Ninja" or Sales "Jedi" or Customer "Ambassador" can communicate both what your employee does and how you want them to do it. It also encourages the employee sporting the creative title to act in a way that supports their moniker. A Customer "Ambassador" is going to feel more inclined to advocate for their client internally than a Customer Service "Representative."
2. Demote Yourself
Most founders give themselves the title of President or Founder but by intentionally not giving yourself the most senior title, you are communicating that there are other more important people in your company. This may sound odd when you own all of the shares, but to maximize your company's value, your goal should be to set things up so your business can run without you. That way, you have the ultimate poker hand: you can sell for a premium or keep your business on autopilot for years and reap the rewards.
3. Award the Title of General Manager
By assigning somebody the title of General Manager, you are clearly communicating they are the most senior day-to-day person in your company, but you still leave open the possibility of bringing in a President or Chief Executive Officer above the GM if your company outgrows the skills of your GM at some point in the future.
4. Give a Long-term Employee the "Senior" Title
Long-term employees can start to feel like their loyalty is being taken for granted. If you have an employee who is loyal but has reached the natural end of their career path with your company, you may consider adding the title Senior to their current title, e.g., Senior Vice-president or Senior Director. The title is a nice bump for the employee and doesn't require promoting them beyond their competence level.
5. Intentionally Use Junior Titles
In a start-up, the natural inclination may be to give the title "Vice-president" to all three of your employees as a way to acknowledge their leap of faith to join your company, but offering a Vice- president title to an obviously junior employee (someone just out of school, for example) is a surefire way to communicate to the market that your business is a fledgling start-up.
Instead, consider the use of junior titles. Using a title like "Manager" can leave your customers thinking that there must also be Directors and Vice-presidents above the front line people. Even if you are yet to fill these roles, making your company appear to have the traditional Christmas tree organization structure can give the impression of a large business.
6. Include the Region Your Employee Serves
These days, employees can live anywhere while they serve a global market. Including a region in an employee's title communicates you are a global company with customers in various regions. While customers may think your Senior Director, Europe spends her days sipping lattes in a Tuscan piazza; they don't need to know she works in a cubicle farm in Cleveland.
As the labor market continues to tighten, you are at a natural disadvantage compared to the Fortune 500 companies you're competing against for talent and customers. Think of job titles as a secret weapon at your disposal.