What’s In A Name?

Job titles are one of the most subjective labels that we receive in our lifetime. They are bestowed upon us by others at a rate that we largely don’t control, and they allow other people to form opinions of us without ever having met us. “Oh wow! That guy’s signature in his email says he’s a VP, he must be really important.”

But the tricky thing about titles is that they mean different things to different people. A Supervisor at Company A might be the equivalent of a Director at Company B. Yet to an employee at Company B, a Supervisor might be several rungs below the Director level in their organizational structure. Titles build an internal hierarchy, but very often we superimpose our own corporate structures onto another company before we understand how that company operates internally. It’s something that we all innately do. A VP is a VP, right? Company A’s VP and Company B’s VP should have roughly the same amount of experience, responsibilities and compensation.   

But that’s not always the case. Not all titles are created equal, particularly in the Age of Start-Ups where titles can become pretty creative. (I have a friend whose actual job title is “Master of Whispers!” Man, I’m jealous!). This can get complicated, particularly for new-hires, millennials and for those of us in the sales industry. Who should I be trying to grab coffee with? Who is the best prospect? Who the heck do I report to and who do they report to? For some companies the corporate ladder is pretty straightforward, but for others, it can be quite horizontal or entangled, which leads to some interesting perceptions.

From the discrepancies I’ve heard from some of our younger clients and associates about job titles within their companies, I was curious to see if other millennials’ interpretations of titles matched my own. We surveyed a group of millennials age 22 to 30 across the country and asked them to interpret where each position fell on the organizational chart.

The majority of participants seemed to agree with our own vision of a corporate chart, with some noticeable discrepancies between the “Director” and “Head” levels. Simple enough. Once we had established that there was at least a traceable pattern of our groups’ assumptions of “simple” corporate hierarchies, we asked a second, more complicated question. Titles are rarely ever just “Director,” “Manager,” and “Supervisor.” Instead, our second question asked participants to imagine themselves as an employee at an unnamed and non-industry specified company. We provided the full titles of four “managers,” and asked participants which of these leaders ranked highest on this imaginary company’s corporate ladder.


This time around the results were not as clear. The majority of participants in the first round ranked the positions “Chief __ Officer, Director, Head, Manager, Supervisor,” from top to bottom. Yet in the second round the majority (36%) of participants thought the “Supervisor of Global Brand Management was the highest ranked manager.” “Associate Director of Gaming” was second with 29%, and “Head Analyst for Internal Communications” was third with 21%.

Now in fairness, we purposefully added words like “Global” and “Associate” to these titles as added variables, but the results are still interesting in that once the titles became more specialized, our participants interpretations of them shifted. When the supervisor was just a supervisor, nearly all participants rated that leader very low on the corporate ladder. However, when the supervisor became the “Supervisor of Global Brand Management,” people’s interpretation of that leader changed.

Titles matter because we form impressions based on them. These impressions may be uninformed, but they are one of the first things people pay attention to in email signatures and on office doors. This is particularly true when new employees enter the work force, especially if they had little previous corporate experience. I once saw a TV show where a paper delivery company’s boss promoted a delivery boy to “Executive Delivery Boy,” because it was “a meaningless title that made employees feel better about themselves.” It was a pretty tongue-in-cheek joke, but I bring it up to highlight that titles mean different things in different organizations.

So what’s in a name? Everybody knows that the head honcho is in charge, but beyond that the waters get a little murky. When new employees enter the workforce, it’s important for them to understand how a company functions. Companies deliver services and products based on individual and team structures that support the organization. But it’s not always easy to understand how different divisions relate to one another.

In the second round of our survey, participants had varying understandings of who belonged where on the corporate ladder. If one of our participants directly reported to the Supervisor of Global Brand Management, then he/she would probably have a pretty good understanding of how the marketing department of the company operated. Yet that also means that initially, this person would not have an understanding of how the Head Analyst for Internal Communications fits into the company structure or what he/she even does.

Millennials have their own understanding of what they think corporate structure looks like, which may not always be in-line with how companies actually function. “Okay the CTO makes the calls, the VP tells the directors, the directors tell the managers, and the managers tell the analysts.” Increasingly, companies’ services and functions are expanding, which means that diversified knowledge across a company’s divisions is a premium skill. But in order for companies to be to develop their millennials into cross-divisional employees, millennials need to have some understanding of how the chain of command works as it relates to a company’s deliverables.

What do you think about job titles? Got a unique one? Let us know!