Do Leaders Need Titles?

When should an employee be promoted? Over the years, I’ve often had this conversation both within my own companies and with owner-clients. An employee is handling responsibilities above his or her official job description. We naturally want to acknowledge the effort, and a new title sends a strong message of recognition. Why not bestow it as soon as possible?

There are a number of reasons to wait. As selfish as it sounds (and is…), as an owner I want to announce a new title when it causes the least grief for me. I’ve had middle managers ask why we hadn’t yet named a leader in a given department. My answer was “I’ll do it when I’m sure the reaction is “Of course” and a shoulder shrug from everyone who will report to her.” If I have to handle fallout following the announcement, it was probably premature.

Perhaps the team is working on a big project or under an exceptionally heavy workload. Even though one person is clearly coordinating and directing the efforts, the team feels that their accomplishment is a group effort. Singling out one person for recognition right  at that moment might make the others feel undervalued, and upset the group’s chemistry.

lead cyclistIf the employee-leader has only recently stepped up performance, I may want to let them season a bit before making a title change. Leadership is easier when things are going well. I like to see someone go through a few challenges, perhaps dealing with an uncooperative co-worker or a project that’s in trouble, before deciding they can handle it over the long term.

I consider whether the employee has raised his or her game on personal effort, or by coaching and helping others to succeed. I appreciate a hard worker as much as anyone, but individual production isn’t the same as improving the production of others.

Is the prospective promotee making decisions, or merely enforcing already existing processes? Is she solving problems, or referring to higher authority for all the answers? Middle managers love to promote leads or supervisors who come to them for every decision, but that does little to strengthen the organization.

Finally, there is one argument that will always make me postpone a promotion. It’s “He needs the title to get others to do what he says.” For a leadership role (which includes any manager, regardless of level or responsibility), you have to get people to accept your decisions because they want to, not because they have to.

I understand that assigning someone responsibility includes giving them the authority to make things happen. The best leaders, however, take on responsibility first. They evidence a natural authority by figuring out how to get others to cooperate willingly, and to accept direction as being in their own self-interest. Those who need the crutch of titular authority before they accept responsibility seldom advance more than one rung up the ladder.

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4 Responses to Do Leaders Need Titles?

  1. Mark says:

    Great post John:

    I fully agree, Promotions are much better received when they are “earned” in the hearts and minds of the peers. Although, this can’t always be the case; it is ideal whenever possible.

    Far too many times in the corporate world I have seen promotions given that were not deserved; ultimately demoralizing key members of the organization.

  2. From my experience a title and $5.95 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. A leader creates an emotional link with his workplace team and excels without a change in business cards.

  3. i agree mostly, John, but where I disagree is where an inappropriate title and/or job spec leads others in the organization to resist and even undermine the efforts of a leader to the point of doing damage. Good Leadership qualities will generally motivate the team and help them see the virtues of the results being sought, but in most organizations, there are those who refuse to see the light and are only interested in protecting their turf and “superior” level in the organization. An appropriate title and job spec makes the role of the leader clear to all.

  4. Linda Christ says:

    Great post and great discussion.
    Shows it not such an easy decision. Different things motivate different people – some the title, some the money and some probably all the recognition

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