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What’s in a Name? The Down Side of Non Traditional Executive Job Titles

Sylvia MacArthur, Madison MacArthur, February 2014

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img-when-a-key-executive-resigns-madison-macarthurA decade or so ago, with new approaches to management and leadership penetrating both big corporates and entrepreneurial businesses alike, two trends became noticeably fashionable: 1) breaking down office compartments and styling offices in an open-plan design, and 2) limiting corporate hierarchies and striving for so-called ‘flat’ management structures. 

What has transpired over the years in such companies is that grand job titles have become anathema…however, in many instances, the management hierarchies and job levels have remained (what exactly is a ‘flat’ structure in a company of more than 50 people?), and regardless of whether everyone on the executive is called ‘Head’, “Guru” or some other vague description (as opposed to Chief, Vice President, Director or similar), everyone in the organisation knows who’s on top! 

However, the challenge for the abstractly designated employees of these companies comes into play when Johnny No-Title decides to move on, and places his CV in the market (or is approached by a headhunter). 
And then the harsh reality of how companies (and their HR departments) evaluate executive level candidates becomes clear – frequently, a new prospective employer will look at the candidate’s most recent job title, and if the appropriate combination of words are not present (Executive Head, Chief something or another, etc), Johnny No-Title’s CV will go to the bottom of the pile. He will probably not even be given the opportunity to interview – purely because of a job title that is perceived to be at a lower level than required. 

We’ve worked with one company in recruiting an executive that was to be the 2iC to the CEO and their internal title was “Operations Co-ordinator” rather than COO. You can imagine how much appeal that had to the VP level candidates we were recruiting. Many declined to consider the opportunity – a loss to both the prospects and to the company.

In the interests of ‘managing their CV’s’, we’ve recently experienced understandable push back from executive level candidates who are taking new positions in companies which don’t do job titles. As part of the deal, they’re insisting on appropriate job titles being included in their employment contracts. Although they will not be using these designations internally, they can use them in a public space (business cards and the like). This at least allows them to include their ‘legal’ job title in their CV’s should they make a career move at some point in the future. 
Tricky to negotiate, because it’s a bit like planning for the divorce at the time of marriage, but if it can be handled deftly, worth your while!