Solving the job title quandary for progressive teams

Self-organizing, self-managing, leading together, flat organization… and highfalutin titles. We want it all. What’s a team to do?

It’s well documented that over 85% of employees rate themselves as disengaged at work. In response, companies try to be different… progressive. Yet disengagement barely shifts. Why? Because we try to keep our feet in two worlds.

Power hierarchies are at the root of the problem. Think of the best employee engagement initiative you’ve seen. Was it a game changer? I bet not. And I also bet the power hierarchy didn’t change either.

Replacing the pyramid of power with a model based on self-organizing is a game changer. Its success or failure depends on embracing the full concept, not just the easy parts.

Every organization on the journey to self-organizing comes up against the same questions.

“What do we call ourselves?”

“Joan was a VP at her last company and she wants that title here too. What do we do?”

“What do I put on my LinkedIn profile?”

Our brains work by association. When I say Vice-President, you think of a position high within a hierarchy. A VP is someone with power in an organization. Let’s look a few more associations we have to traditional titles.

Of all Fortune 200 companies in 1955, only one was led by someone holding the title of CEO. The term didn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1972. How many companies do you know that don’t have a CEO today? But why the term Chief Executive Officer and is it appropriate in self-organizing businesses? The term chief traces back to the Latin word caput, which translates to head of a group. An executive is “someone in a high position, especially in business.” The most frequent use of the word officer references those holding positions of authority in the army or police department. Coming full circle, a president is “the chief officer of an organization usually entrusted with the direction and administration of its policies.” A director is “a person in charge of an organization or of a particular part of a company’s business.” And, lastly, a manager is the person responsible for managing an organization.

Do you see the pattern? Head of, high position, rank, authority, police, direction, in charge. These words are all close neighbours of power. Each word on its own is quite benign, but remember that our brains work by association. Building a different organization requires that we move away from language pulling us into the past.

So what can we do instead?

Use a universal name for everyone on your team

All 19 people on the team at French company Fly The Nest hold the title of co-founder. This might seem strange at first but isn’t a new constellation of people formed every time someone joins?

A similar approach replaces the word founder with leader. Everyone in a company leads something, even if that something is small. Rather than asking individuals accustomed to leadership titles to lose those titles, show how everyone is a leader.

Choose or invent new words

Many self-organizing companies use the term Lead Link or Cross Link for the leader of a team (often called a circle). These roles are different from traditional leadership positions. They focus on linking the purpose of the team to the purpose of the company. Sound a little weird? That’s the point. If we use the language we’ve always used, we’ll associate with paradigms of the past. The term Lead Link (since evolved to Cross Link) took root in an organizing system known as Holacracy.

Whatever names you choose, learn from the team at Buffer. They realized that women represented less than 2 percent of their developer candidates. As a result they took several steps to attract more women. For example, they removed words such as rock star, ninja and dominate from their role descriptions. These words tend to resonate more with men. Whatever titles you choose, ensure they don’t discriminate.

Rely on the team, circle or department name

Take a look at the team page for, a team dedicated to building an inclusive financial system. None of the team members list role titles per se. Instead they focus on their team or area of contribution.

Traditionally we might say, “Joan Thompson, Vice-President, Marketing”. Instead consider, “Joan Thompson, Marketing”. This might lead you to think, “but how will people know how senior I am?” Within the company, leadership doesn’t come from titles but rather from building trust. Externally, make your company’s approach to titling a feature rather than a bug. Choose to boldly, bravely and intentionally be different. Rather than trying to fit into an old system, take pride in building something new.

Adopt API’s

Choosing to be a lead together team in a hierarchical world can be challenging. Sometimes we may choose to create APIs. APIs are the bits of software code that allow different applications to connect and communicate with each other. For example, you may choose to recruit for a VP, Marketing where, internally, VP stands for Value Producer. This way, everyone in your organization is a VP.

Whatever you decide, choose consciously. Think about the titles you create and the unconscious associations that may result. I’ll leave you with one last example. If you choose the title “Head of” what associations might follow? The head is where the thinking happens. It controls the hands and the feet. Is the person filling this role doing all the thinking? Is everyone else on the team meant to take all their direction from that person? Sounds like a quick path to disengagement.