Oh those corporate titles

We were a bunch of trainees listening to Mr FC Kohli at TCS in 1999. He asked if we had questions – and one of my friends asked “Our title now is Assistant Systems Engineer trainee. Our competitors give way nicer titles at our level. Why can’t we be called consultants?”. Mr Kohli’s response was “The guy who takes photocopies in one of our young competitors is called VP of corporate communications. Would you want to be a VP too , young man?”. I think he also added that “what they call as revenue is less than what we call as profit every year”. I have not seen Mr Kohli since then – but I will never forget his view on titles in the work place. It essentially formed my habit of making fun of titles at every opportunity I get 🙂

There was one company I worked in – Novasoft – where there was absolutely no hierarchy. There was an MD and the rest of us were all senior consultants. In every other company I have worked in, there has been a hierachy – and some had ridiculous number of layers.

The confusion that titles generate is unbelievable. Every time I have a discussion on careers with one of my team members or mentees – I see this first hand. And now as I try to evaluate various offers for my own employment, I find myself confused quite often too in this regard.

Contrary to popular opinion, size of the company is clearly not correlated to titles. One of the smaller sized companies I considered as a potential employer told me that they are very lean and flat, and that everyone is treated equally and that they don’t cater to ego titles. After meeting the executive team, I realized the head of sales alone is an EVP and everyone else reporting to their CEO is an SVP. Another startup has a CEO who is also the president, although for a long time to come there is no reason to think they will have more than one division. Yet another startup has a VP working for a VP who works for another VP.  These are not companies that have thousands of employees – the three examples above don’t even have 500 employees I think.

The big companies are almost all terrible about titles and levels. VPs working for VPs and managing partners working for managing partners are common.There are General Managers in many such companies who don’t have a team or budget .And since a lot of people get involved in every interesting initiative in these companies – folks at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder spend a lot of time looking at the org chart to figure out who has real clout and who is wasting their time. At least at one of my prior employers, “who do you work for?” was asked of me routinely before someone granted me a bit of their time.

At some point – HR would introduce a concept of job bands into the mix. This is supposed to decrease confusion – but ironically I have only ever seen it increase confusion. Now people get looked upon by both their internal and external titles. Although the theory is that no one should know another person’s internal title – it is rarely a secret. So now this becomes 2X as bad in the confusion it creates and loss of efficiency that it results in.

Then there is title inflation. Because titles are cheap and money is expensive – many managers generously give titles without any thought, usually in lieu of compensation or to hire someone away from competition. I have worked at a company where you cannot walk across a floor without literally running into a VP or SVP.

What is the question that I spend the most time answering as a manager ? it is “how can I get promoted?”. As I speak with them more and dig a bit deeper – many times they are not even really asking for a promotion. They just need an increase in base pay or bonus or they want more stock. Sometimes they really are indeed asking about moving to the next level and need just advice on skill gaps . In many cases the root of this conversation is something like “Dick in marketing is a VP, and I do way more than he does in product management – so why I am I just a director?”. In many cases – this is a genuine question, which makes honest answers very difficult for the managers. I know one executive who promoted someone to a bigger title because this person was better than everyone else in the team. What he did not realize was that the team was a bunch of poor performers to begin with and it was a low bar to promote someone compared to them. These things happen every day and frustrates many of us endlessly. I certainly have been frustrated an awful lot both as an employee and as a manager.

Not everyone gets “life is not fair in corporate world” quickly. Every manager who generously gives away undeserving titles to their employees is doing significant harm to other employees and managers. It is not that HR and upline managers are ignorant of this. Its just that no one ever gets around to fixing it for the long term.

From an org design point of view – you only really need a manager, a director and a VP in a hierarchy. Maybe at more than 500 people or so – it makes sense to have 2 divisions at each level (like a director and senior director) . At executive level – the sole criteria should be whether the person can form a plan to align with corporate strategy, get it approved and execute to deliver results with practically no supervision. With this lens – how many people truly deserve to be VP, SVP, EVP, GM etc ?

Does all of this mean that you as an employee or candidate should not ask for as good a title as you can get ? No – absolutely you should ask for as good a title as you can get if you are in a company that has all these issues I talked about above. When a lot of employees bring up these conversations, hopefully people in positions of power will wake up and do something about this topic. Till then – you are welcome to join me in making good natured fun of titles, including my own 🙂


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

4 thoughts on “Oh those corporate titles

  1. interesting topic Vijay. I have also wondered on this as well. I have quite a few friends who are in Banking and Financial services and there, even to this day, the titles are bases on years of service. The Title may say VP (and that is very common in BFSI industry), but the person might be a technical lead or architect. I very much like the move by Zappos to move to Holacracy model – a complete flat org with no Titles and hierarchy. We will see how that pans out – it seems 15% of the employees chose to leave.


  2. I worked for one company where I was told (after I was employed), that the only reason I got hired as a “Senior Consultant” was to have it on my business card for when I was introduced to their (only) client. Fortunately, we were a good team and the client’s employees I interacted with saw it as amusing, not insulting.


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