This past week, Tesla filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission changing the titles of Elon Musk and Chief Financial Officer, Zach Kirkhorn to “Technoking of Tesla” and “Master of Coin of Tesla” respectively.

Can we assume that it’s a PR ploy for the company or that the “master of coin” title aligns Kirkhorn with the $1.5B worth of bitcoin the company purchased last month? While it’s unclear what prompted the change in titles, it brings to light the complexity of job titles, identity, consumer confidence, and decision-making.

Job titles are a simple set of words behind an individual’s name that serve as a public indicator of status or stature within a company. They are a way for organizations to manage talent, even if they don’t always reflect the true value that employees bring to their jobs.

A healthcare solutions CEO recently said, “I can describe myself as the CEO of a $1 billion healthcare company or I can describe myself as a doctor and leader who has extended care to millions of patients across the U.S. You tell me what’s more meaningful?”

It’s clearly a highly personal perspective

While a description of actual accomplishments or value may be a literal definition of her job, this marketing executive took the opposite path. She preferred her “official” or time-honored title that’s easily embraced by her industry peers.

“I have worked so many years to get a Senior Vice President title and I wear it like a badge of honor,” she said. “It tells others where I fit in the hierarchy, gives me the confidence that my achievements have been recognized, and allows me to position myself correctly for roles with other agencies so that I go in at the right level.” Ultimately, it gave her security and made her feel more competent as a representative of her firm and in her self-representation with clients and prospective/future employers.

To encourage individuality in professional identity and a unique expression of value, some organizations have experimented with encouraging employees to create their own titles. Researchers at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania published the results of their study in the Academy of Management Journal titled, “Job Titles as Identity Badges: How Self-Reflection Titles Can Reduce Emotional Exhaustion”. Researchers found that self-reflective job titles brought self-verification, psychology safety, along with a reduction in stress.

At the same time, job titling can lead to job inflation

Job inflation is enhancing the perception of your job role beyond the socially accepted norms for a position, creating unintended consequences for an organization and its brand.

One executive at an organizational leadership firm calls himself the “Chief Enthusiasm Officer” and “The Craftsman of Culture & Hope”. A consumer may be motivated by the creativity of the leader or be turned off and not hire him because of his eccentric or non-traditional view of himself. Regardless of which point of view you have, his self-perception has a direct impact on the product his firm delivers and the experience he creates for his clients.

On a broader scale, The Toledo Law Review published a piece from Lindsey K. Self, titled, “Let the Air Out! Deflate Inflated Job Titles: Rethinking Title Inflation and its Impact on Apparent Authority and Empower Liability” describing the negative impact of a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley.

Mr. Self tells the story of a widow without much money management experience who inherited a large sum of money from her husband’s will. She selected a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley to manage her money and make investment choices. She believed that her money manager was trustworthy because Morgan Stanley demonstrated its confidence in him by giving him a prestigious title.

What she didn’t know was that her money manager had a history of making unauthorized trades and risky investments. She wound up losing a boatload of money. She also didn’t know that senior vice president titles were given to thousands of managers and advisors in the financial services industry as a method of reassuring clients that their managers were competent and trustworthy, and that the rates they charged for their services were worth every penny.

It’s complicated. We’re almost conditioned to judge a book by its cover and assume that someone with a lofty title will provide elevated levels of service, advanced knowledge, or some other tangible benefit. But it’s not always the case.

Or if we flip the coin, do we assume some titles mean certain things simply because, well, that’s the way it’s always been?

Are we fearful of judgment from others about our accomplishments (or lack thereof), along with how we see ourselves, our level of confidence, arrogance, or humility?

These judgments bleed over into how your firm is viewed as well. Take a moment to reflect upon your reaction to the Tesla title announcement. Do you judge the people or the organization or both by the creative titles?

Titles are tied to our self-identity and the value we provide

How we view titles is extremely personal and deeply rooted in how we see ourselves, our drive for extrinsic recognition for achievement and badges (and there’s nothing wrong with that or judgment), or our intrinsic motivation (our internal drive) to lead with the value we bring.

My father was a CFO of a home design company, and he used to say, “Call me a pisher [a Yiddish term for an inexperienced or inept person] but pay me.” Clearly, his title wasn’t important to him – he valued the money that came from the value he brought to the organization. As we think about whether to lead with title or lead with the value we bring, consider this:

  • Are you extrinsically motivated (do you need the recognition from others to be satisfied) or are you intrinsically motivated (self-driven by the work and bettering others)? How does this factor into your use or creation of your title?
  • What does the title mean to you and mean to the organization where you work?
  • Do you personally evoke greater trust with your title or does trust come because of the value you bring (think CEO of healthcare company)?
  • If your title is closely tied to your identity and personal leader brand, how well are your actions, behaviors, time management, experience working with you aligned to the title (do you really do the role, or is it job title inflation)?
  • What is the impact of your title on your organization, its brand and reputation, and what’s expected of you in your behavior?

We’ve all heard the adage (also known as the Peter Parker principle) that “With great power comes great responsibility”. Well, it’s true with titles as well.

If you choose – or are bestowed – a title that signifies a certain level of accomplishment, we owe it to ourselves – and our employers – to rely on our moral barometer and perform accordingly.

Not comfortable with that? We’re sure there’s an opening for “Chief Invisibility Officer” somewhere…

Cover image source: Mike