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What’s in a Title?

Shout out to Andrew Der who suggested I cover this topic in our weekly posts!

Recently I was helping a candidate decide if she should accept an Account Director role even though she was a VP, Account Director at her current agency. Since titles vary wildly from agency to agency, it’s hard to tell what represents a lateral move or a promotion.

Here’s the advice I gave her:

The finance, management consulting and legal industries may have well-defined advancement paths, where titles from firm to firm are very similar in terms of seniority and years in the industry. There’s no standardized career trajectory in our business. Instead we have a noisy and chaotic traffic circle, where Partners, Associates, Directors and Managers all whip around, weaving in and out of assigned lanes.

How did this happen? Any number of reasons. The dotcom boom introduced a bunch of new roles and titles. Start-ups will little more to offer than title and equity floated exotic-sounding names like Chief Smile Officer. Network agencies introduced Partner and VP programs as retention vehicles. Then, it was in vogue to have a flat organizational structure. As a result, titles didn’t evolve on a sensible grid plan but instead flourished more organically… which is exactly how Little West 12th ended up next to West 4th and why one man’s Marketing Director is another’s Account Sup.

That means you, the job hunter and me, the recruiter, have to relinquish our assumptions, keep an open mind and learn to evaluate titles in other ways.

Questions to ask to decide it the level is right for you:

  • Does the reporting structure make sense, e.g. Are employees with the same title truly peer level in terms of years of experience, authority & intelligence?
  • Is there plenty of room for advancement between you & your boss? Is the promotion path defined and realistic?
  • Does the title convey the appropriate level of authority to clients and internal teams?
  • What are the number of direct reports & size of P&L responsibility?
  • Does the job you’re being asked to do, and the expectations of what you can accomplish, sound aligned with your experience?

But what about demonstrating increasing responsibility on your resume?

As a recruiter, I don’t put a lot of stock in titles. I reply more on things like years of experience, size of management responsibility, etc. to define the candidate. I recognize title progression on a resume may not always be linear, and encourage my employer clients to evaluate things like agency size, years of experience, and tenure at a single place. All these things can affect title. For example, someone that goes from Account Supervisor to Director of Client Services to Account Director may have gone from a very large agency to a tiny start-up and back again. Director of Client Services at a 25-person agency with $7MM in annual revenues is not the same as a Client Service Director at an agency twice that size.

How about the perks?

My candidate that was offered the Account Director had worked really hard to earn VP title. It afforded her profit sharing and an extra week of vacation. Understandably, she was reluctant to give that up in a new role.

These are things we can work on together. By the job offer stage, I’ll have a clear picture of what perks are awarded at different levels in the organization. We’ll be able to determine whose bonus eligible, what the vacation policy is, etc. and we can see if there’s room for negotiation.

Finally, it’s valuable to understand the significance your new employer places on title. How important does it seem in the organization? Asking if you can be called Minister of Smiles (because that’s what you were promised at your old company), knighted and given the keys to the city may come off as obnoxious in a very entrepreneurial culture. That’s just going to leave me and the Chief Smile Officer wondering if it’s the best match after all!

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