Let’s talk about labels. In traditional corporate ecosystems, status is king. Employees are defined as much by their rung on the ladder as the actual work that they do. Promotion is often marked as simply a change in job title – from ‘analyst’ to ‘consultant’ for example – and for many this is more appealing than a financial bonus. Why? Employees feel certain titles carry more weight, prestige and authority than others. It’s also important that when they leave a company, their title is fully reflective of their position and value, so they yield more power as they negotiate their next step.
When I moved out of the corporate world and into the startup one, an interesting thing happened. I struggled to find an appropriate job title for myself. I found myself out of predictable public sector waters and floating in a sea of startup chaos – I was employee number one after the co-founders, the first hire in a team of three. My responsibilities seemed endless. I was a product designer, a marketer, a client success agent, a content creator, a business developer, an advisor… the list goes on.
Of course, the pressure was on to define myself as something – the beady eyes of social media eagerly awaited my next career move! But I didn’t give in… I might as well have called myself a ‘Professional Plate Spinner’ since every hour of every day required the flexibility and versatility to shed one job title for another.
What I discovered surprised me. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the variety of roles I had, and the lack of structure and security that came with a ‘Title’, there was a tremendous sense of freedom in it. The socially acceptable need for ‘identity’ in the workplace seemed suddenly archaic and liberating myself from labels lent itself to creating a greater sense of purpose and idea generation. It was no longer the case that what I did defined who I was and the title I held had no bearing on how much respect I received from others in the organisation. When you work in a startup, you don’t go to work you are the work.
I’ve since moved on to another start up – albeit a rapidly growing one. I joined Jobbio when it was a trailblazing team of 30, and eight months on we’ve almost doubled in size. As a company, we’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining a flat structure so far – the founders embrace an open door policy and encourage input from everyone they hire. I came in, much as I had in my previous role, to simply see what I could do. We picked another vague title (Expert In Residence) to give me the freedom to work across all teams of the business, fundamentally creating my own job.
I’m sure this is one of the reasons Millennials and Gen Zs are so drawn to the world of Startup. The majority of career newbies have no idea what they want to do, even as they walk up to the podium and throw their graduation cap in the air. All they know for sure, is that they want to continuously grow and develop, to be given the chance to explore options and contribute in numerous different ways. They want to add value be valued just as much as those in the upper echelon of organisation. They don’t want to be labelled.
The old fashioned conglomerates insisting that everyone works their way up from Junior to Senior and taking a ‘top-down’ approach to management are the ones experiencing highest levels of turnover. The younger, flat structure companies that embrace the ideas of new and junior hires, are open to experimentation and allow employees to diversify the work they do report higher levels of retention and employee happiness. Removing the hierarchy of a job title means that everyone’s on a neutral playing ground, so it’s the quality of the idea, not the position of the person that wins.
My next experiment will be to follow in the footsteps of the innovators like Cloudflare and Zappos, and suggest the whole company to do away with job titles that hint towards seniority, in the hope of bringing about even more flexibility, diversity of thought and collective problem solving. Perhaps it’s a utopian vision, and hierarchy will still muscle it’s way through but I encourage all organisations to rethink the concept of the ‘Job Title’. Instead of telling people what you expect them to do, ask them how they’d like to add value, encourage them to contribute across all areas of the business and celebrate the ideas of all employees, regardless of whether they’ve been there a day, a year or a decade.
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