Supreme leader, Chief of staff, President, believe me I’ve met them all. I’m not referring to my previous life as an international figurehead, but rather to the many and oh so varied startup job titles I’ve come across. Although these commanding titles are better suited for the military/political world, I’m seeing them adopted by startup teams, ever so slightly distorting the reality of what it’s like to work in a small team. Whether it be a power play, or just because it’s fun as shit to call yourself the Supreme Leader when you run a startup of three people, I cannot say.
I met a startup team last week at the idea stage. There were three of them– CEO, CTO and CMO. This isn’t uncommon and I don’t intend to sit on my high horse and judge, as we have similar titles at Kviar (although we are at a much later stage). What I’m interested in is why we continue to adopt these corporate titles that emphasize hierarchies within early stage startups of a few people. Do you really need to be called CEO for someone to take you seriously? Enterprise companies, are you to blame?
With Titles Comes Entitlement & Expectations
It feels good to call yourself CEO, right? Even if it’s just you in the company. You’re the boss. You make things happen. You run the show.
With titles comes a sense of entitlement (it says it in the name). Calling yourself the head honcho means that when it comes to crunch time, it’s you that’s making the decision, not the marketing junior. You’re expected to lead and with that expectation one develops a claim to the throne, which within a small team can destroy the dynamic. This top-down hierarchy can make it challenging to make decisions and iterate quickly thus defying any lean methodology. This isn’t just applicable at the CEO level as any C-suite or VP title holds authority. But authority over what? Yourself and the other co-founders? Entitlement can lead to power struggles and conflict between early employees (we have experienced this on a few occasions).
And then there are the expectations that titles assume. When you’re building the initial team, people are selected with the idea of filling the role for a specific part of the organization, whether this is marketing, tech, design, operations etc. Calling somebody a VP of operations leads people to believe that the company has a strong focus on operations but this is highly unlikely within an early stage startup. This isn’t only confusing for outsiders but also the internal team.
Also titles can be misleading, you bring someone onboard as one of the first hires, possibly it’s a co-founder. You give them the title of VP of business development even though their experience says otherwise. The title throws some weight so you expect that anything to do with the business side of things should be taken care of. That’s often not the case. If you want/need a VP of business development then make sure you find someone with the right skill set who can meet the demands of the required position. Don’t get your label maker ready just yet, curate your team with care and let the titles come a bit later.
Flat Is Where It’s At
For those of you new to the startup world, you will wear many hats—think of the Mad Hatter. It means that to survive you need to be nimble, dynamic, ambidextrous and a good swimmer. Your role will undeniably change whether you are King of the startup or an intern helping fold paper. Limiting someone by a title to perform only certain actions seems antiquated and counterproductive, especially in the early stages.
Word on the street is that both companies are having a lot of success making use of this structure. Flat organizations can help get rid of those exhaustive meetings seem to disappear, solving problems becomes easier with less red tape, there are fewer debates and most importantly, there is an increase in productivity and efficiency. Jason Fried from 37signals explains how it works in his company:
“Instead of rewarding high performers with managerial responsibilities—which often drives people further away from the job they are actually good at—we reward with responsibilities closer to the work.”
That’s not to say that this setup doesn’t have its downsides. It’s human nature to want to ascend the ladder, to achieve and to be perceived as being someone who has “made it to the top”. Using a horizontal model means that people don’t have the opportunity to grow upwards but side-wards. As you can imagine, this helps people becomes true experts in their field. Jason talks about giving promotion within the ranks:
“We’ve experimented with promoting a few people to manager-level roles. In some cases, this has worked out; in others, it hasn’t. But one thing we’ve found is that groups that manage themselves are often better off than groups that are managed by a single person. So when groups do require structure, we get them to manage themselves.”
So What Title Do You Adopt?
Ultimately I think that startup titles don’t mean as much as we’d like them too. Sure being CEO or President looks fancy on that new business card, but within the company it’s not as important as being a part of the team and doing your job well. On top of that, with wacky titles such as quality herder, C3PO, growth hacker, roof hopping ninja and customer happiness manager who wants to be CEO?
We Are Hiring via Shutterstock
Job Title via Shutterstock