What’s In a Title?

By eric

It might be easy to think that, “it’s ok, we’re a small company. I can totally give this person a COO, CMO, CDO, or whatever title you are considering them for.”  Unless you are completely certain of the this individual’s skill set and that they will be able to deliver, and at least initially grow and scale with the company, be wary of just adding C level or highly titled folks.

Why Do We Do This


The idea of giving out titles is something in a small company that often doesn’t get its due amongst the many millions of other things fighting for priority and headspace. While it’s not something to get wrapped around the axel on, it is also not something that can or should be taken lightly. It not only has an effect on the company, it has an effect on the individual.

There is sometimes a fine line (and sometimes a grand canyon sized gap) between giving someone a title to get them on board and them being deserving of the title they received.  The issues arise if someone is underperforming. Then you have to have a “conversation” to find out why and what can be done about it.  If this individual already holds a C level or very senior title, then you are left with precious few options, none of which are good.


One of these options is title demotion. In the best case scenario, this is only demoralizing to the individual and will have an adverse but hopefully minimal effect on their work. In the worst scenario, it will affect the rest of the organization as well and create resentment ultimately leading to one or more costly departures. It’s also worth pointing out that having someone under-qualified hold a higher title than they deserve can breed a similar, if not greater level of resentment with the same potential outcome.

A much worse version of this, as if it needed to get worse, is that you have to let that individual go. This approach may or may not be easier depending on how much of the corporate culture is tied to that person’s presence, personality, productivity, or (p-)working style (felt like I needed another p in there).

Thinking Ahead

As a leader in the organization, you also need to be thinking about the future. What if you have to hire someone above that person? Are they willing to take a demotion for the good of the organization if that’s necessary? There are absolutely amazing people like this who can see the bigger picture (read my friend Charity Major‘s story here). But I would argue that people like this are the exception, not the rule.


One of the solutions to this problem that I’ve used over the years is a non-title-title. It’s something that can sound fancy on a resume, but can’t easily be misconstrued positively or negatively as needed. I am generally not a fan of taking this approach as it involves being more coy than I prefer to be nowadays.

The most constructive and arguably best solution is simply to be upfront with the person. Give them a clear set of milestones and goals that you’d like to see them hit in order to become the title that they want. This way both parties are starting from an explicit starting point with an unambiguous path to get to the desired destination. Have regular checkins, if possible, to ensure that the goal posts aren’t being moved and that everyone is still one the same page.

While the title is a valuable recruiting tool, sales and support tool, as well as general motivational tool, it’s important to remember that within the organization, it has a different meaning than outside the organization. Choose the titles of your team wisely and keep in mind that while it’s a smaller concern for you than it is for them, that doesn’t make it any less important of a decision.

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