Leaders, abandon your job titles!

The obsession with job titles can lead to poor motivation in the workplace.

When my youngest son was eight years old he overheard a conversation I was having over the phone. I was telling a close relative that I had just been promoted to vice president: human resources for a large multinational in Africa.

This was big news for me. The first Indian female VP in my organisation’s history in South Africa. My family including, my eight-year-old, clearly sensed my excitement and joy that morning. Off to school he went and when he came back from school he said: “I told Aidan that you were promoted to vice president of Africa!”

I smiled and corrected him, trying to explain to him what VP meant in the context of the corporate world. Later that afternoon, I received a call from Aidan’s mum (also a close friend of mine at the time). She said: “Congratulations, Aidan came home so excited to tell me that you are now ‘the president of Africa’.” Needless to say, we had a good chuckle.

However, in my years of leading a large team across the continent, I learnt that I got more from my team through servant leadership than through positional power. When I asked my team, “How can I help?”, I got much more creativity and commitment than if I were to say, “This is how I want it done.” I realised that my role as a leader was to unblock barriers, speak up for my team and have their backs when things went wrong. When we succeeded it was shared success, and when we “failed” I stood first to be held accountable.

Shortly into my new role, my younger team members decided that I needed to update my social media profile. When it came to putting down my job title, I felt constrained by how long winded it was (and I remembered the confusion it created for my son), so I told them I needed something to describe what I do and not what title I held. They reverted, saying, “We will call you ‘The People Escalator’,” and they explained how I am always trying to uplift others around me. I loved it and I have kept it ever since.

The title of “The People Escalator” did more for me in my years to come as a leader than being known as a vice president of human resources. I spoke up for people more in meetings, I mentored more people than ever before and I became a D&I advocate and ally at a time when people in the organisation needed me most. Every day I asked myself if my contribution to policies or processes was uplifting people in my organisation or constraining them, and if it was the latter, I put my energy into removing those barriers.

I have also seen how the obsession with job titles can lead to poor motivation in the workplace. I would often have career conversations with really strong talent and ask them what they really wanted and often their starting point in defining what they wanted was expressed in a job title or a work level, for example “I want to get to director by the time I am 38.”

I would then go two clicks down and ask them what inspired them, what motivated them and soon we would get into a deep discussion on purpose. What we do in our careers and how we do it will be subject to constant change and adaptation, and a job title will therefore be extremely limiting, but why we do what we do will be far more sustainable and more likely to lead to leadership success and ultimately career progression.

I am not saying that career progression is not important, in fact it is essential as human beings that we strive to reach our full potential, but I am saying that a job title alone won’t achieve that for you in the longer term.

In addition, I was catching up on LinkedIn as I often do in the evenings, and I came across many ex-colleagues who had still not removed their association with their previous companies. In other words, their titles intimated that they still worked for their previous organisation. I wondered how many organisations look into this regularly and whether there was a broader impact on their employer brand. I even saw one former colleague who recrafted her job title to appear more senior than she was and was subsequently attracted into another organisation. Where is ethics and morality in all of this?

Today’s workforce does not care about your fancy job title, they care about how you treat them, how you care for them and how you take them on a journey of success with you. Silos are blurred and barriers are removed when you shift from hierarchies into networks. In return for that you get discretionary effort from your team, and your collective output is amplified, which for me was always more fulfilling than a job title!