Last November I was interviewing with a very stealthy (for a very good reason) startup in Boston. During my conversation with a co-founder Ellen (she is very stealthy too, so I will skip last name), I asked her what her title was. Her answer was something that has stuck with me to this day. She said: “if you are in a startup and have a title, you are not doing enough“!
In my career I have worked only for very rapidly growing startups and mature small businesses, well except for a short stint with GRAMMY and Polygram Records. When I think back about all the things (jobs) I have worked on in my career, her statement helps me now encapsulate and explain what I do. I clearly remember days when 6’5” truly yours gentle giant here hanging from ceiling supports, because the ladder was not tall enough. I had to hang on one hand, while the other was feeding cable into conduit. The next morning I had to be in a sales meeting with a client and than run payroll in the afternoon. Or how about the times when I may be in my best suit, but my colleague’s workstation needs to be revived and I am under the table liberating it from tangle of cords. Flipping between these responsibilities is natural to me and I could care less what title you attach to me. COO, Dir. of Ops, CIO, Dir. of IT, Head of Ops and IT, Ops Manager, Partner, Principle, and etc. etc. etc. At the end of the day what matters is if company is in better place, because what I have done.
Ellen’s statement also had another important point. I see this every day with young and even more mature startups. So many leaders get caught up in their egos with needless large titles. This thinking leads them to not only put themselves in a box (“hey, I am a CEO, I should not be helping the team clean up after company BBQ), but also hurts the company, because others are in the trenches, while this “general” is sitting up in his ivory tower. Battles are won fastest with leadership in the front lines. You are much more likely to give 200%, when the founder of the company is right next to you burning the midnight oil. I would venture to say that the higher you are in the leadership role of the startup, the more you should not forget doing the lower level jobs from time to time. You had a brainstorming meeting with pizza, you should be the first one to start cleaning. Moving the team to new digs, you should be the first one with dolly in your hands. Laptop crashes? You should be right there with your tech guy making sure he has everything he needs pronto!
Some may say that you need to have a title in the outside world. If you have a lot of value to add with a person you are meeting, trust me, your title will have zero impact. I have seen business cards of some very influential people with no titles. They saved that spot for cell phone number. Investors will not put money into your company because you have a bunch of people with titles. They will give money though, if you can show you will be cash positive, because everyone is being utilized to the fullest, and there is no needless spending.
So in summary: skip the big titles, focus on quantity and quality of the impact you will have on your team and your company.
EDIT (12/25/08): Just came across an article with a perfect example of how a “no title”, “no org chart”, “no egos” environment works. Read about it in the Evolving Excellence blog article “No Titles Except “Plant” Manager”.