Job Titles – the dangers of the “Senior Principal XYZ”

One controversial topic when building an organization is how to handle job titles.  In my first leadership role my Director always used a very simple email signature, “- Name”. I asked him why he didn’t have a formal signature and he shrugged “if people are contacting me it is because they already know who I am and what I can do to help”.
Over time I have become more and more turned off by fancy titles.  A recent favorite of mine is “Senior Principal XYZ”.  Seriously – google it.  It is all over the place.  I searched my email inbox and found the following examples:
  • “Senior Principal Analyst” – Research firm
  • “Senior Principal Customer Success Manager” – Symantec
  • “Senior Principal, Expert Advisor” – Data Science at SAP
  • “Senior Principal Learning Consultant” – Enterprise Rent a Car
  • “Senior Principal Program Manager” – Veritas
  • “Senior Principal Actuary”
  • “Senior Principal, Digital Marketing Platform & Analytics at CSC”
  • “Senior Principal Java Engineer – Java” – from a email in 2009!
I always thought Principal was better than Senior, or maybe Senior is better than Principal?  Why not just make the title “Good Great Program Manager”?   When was the last time you saw a job posting for a “Junior” anything?  Next time I choose a doctor or lawyer I will be sure to get a “Senior Principal General Medicine Doctor”.
The arguments in support of titles are:
  • Individual
    • I can’t get a different Job without it!
    • I need it for my customer to feel important!
    • I can’t get Married without the right title!
    • I want to know I am progressing in my career
  • Manager
    • We couldn’t give the person a raise but a Title is free and helps show recognition
    • I can’t hire good people unless I have it
My concerns with these:
  • Individual
    • I can’t get a different Job without it! First, good to know you are planning to have a nice long career with our company 🙂 Second, I too would never want someone to feel trapped in a role.  I believe that our team is a volunteer organization.  You should have whatever title makes you not feel trapped.
    • I need it for my customer to feel important! This is the argument for banks and everyone being a VP. But really… when was the last time a customer said “Boy I am really glad I have an Account Executive and not an Account Manager!” or “I dont want a Sales Engineer, I will only work with a Senior Sales Engineer!”.  Customers care about good people who can help them.
    • I can’t get Married without the right title! Yes. This is true in places like India.
    • I want to know I am progressing in my career. Most of the work force today grew up in the world of Pong, Super Mario Brothers, and World of Warcraft.  We grew up in a world where we “gotta play one more turn, gotta get to the next level!” Even though the next level is only minimally different from the last.
  • Manager
    • We couldn’t give the person a raise but a Title is free and helps show recognition! – this comes up a lot when your company isn’t doing well but you want to retain talent.  Let’s give them a bigger title and show them how important they are!  I have seen it work but it also seems cheap/fake to me.  If you want to recognize the person then recognize them through clear honest ways.
    • I can’t hire good people unless I have it – they wont apply! – I dont know of many managers who hire great talent through unknown applicants.  Almost all hires are referrals or somehow connected by 1 or 2 levels of separation on LinkedIn.  Do you think excellent hard working top performers will only apply based on a title?  The smart humble people you want are better than that.
  • as-a-kid-grumpy-old-man-as-an-adult-hero-7074116

Why am I so against fancy titles?

  • If you bring them in at the wrong level – you can’t demote them.  Leaders aren’t perfect.  It is hard enough to bring in people who will be successful at your company but then to also bring them in at exactly the right level too?  What often happens is you want to hire someone but their compensation is high and it forces you into the salary band for that title.  Then when that person joins and doesn’t perform at that lofty level their fellow team members resent that the person has a higher title than they do.  When you make this mistake you can’t just demote the person – they would quit.  You are locked in.
  • People want a checklist of things to do to get the title – when you start to differentiate one peer from another with a different title they want to know why.  So you are then required to document each difference and what it takes to get to that other level.  Do you think you can clearly write the legalese required to satisfy your detail oriented team members? 🙂
  • It defines not only what you do, but what you WON’T do – then once you have documented all the differences you give someone a reason to start saying “that is not in my job description, I am over qualified for that” or “I don’t do POCs or take Problem tickets any more”.
  • You can’t move people more than 1 title level – every try to move someone from a “software engineer I” to a III or a “Junior TAM” to a “Senior Principal TAM”?  Skipping more than one title level somehow becomes an act of god.  You are now breaking some unwritten rule of the corporate ladder.
  • Tie your self worth to a label rather than your impact/results – your title then begins to define how you value yourself. “Oh, I can’t leave this job – I am a VP and I don’t want to go backwards to be a Director”.  Guess what folks.  I was a VP in charge of 8 people at GoodData and left to be a Director of 25 people at Zscaler.  Turned out pretty good for me so far… go check our post IPO performance 😉
  • It only serves to make one person feel better compared to their peers – this is the most important reason.  If at the end of the day the customer doesn’t care about your title, compensation isn’t tied to it, opportunity to work on more challenging projects, and training isn’t tied to it, then the only purpose it serves is for one team member to feel more important that the other.
Have you ever taken a step back to ask why we have a job title in the first place?
It is because without a job title you would have to spend 5 minutes explaining what you do to every person you interact with.
The purpose of a job title is to convey what you are responsible for and the scope.
Role: what do you do?
  • Engineer
  • Sales
  • Support
Scope (Assuming ~9 person teams the below framework will scale to ~7,000 people…)
  • Manager = 1st line leader
  • Director = 2nd line leader
  • VP = 3rd line leader
  • CXO = 4th line leader
So what is my approach?
  • Choose only a few titles
  • Convey scope
  • Convey responsibility
  • Single very large compensation range
  • Enables a person to marry anyone they want and get any job they want.
For example in our Organization we have only two titles
  • Customer Success Manager (CSM) = a post sales resource focused on making the customer successful
  • Technical Account Manager (TAM) = someone who is technical and dedicated to only a few accounts
In the last Org we had
  • Sales Engineer:  deep product expertise, few named accounts
  • Solution Architect: broad industry expertise, lots of accounts / overlay resource
For scope we do have traditional levels like the ones above but we don’t do Sr. Director.  Instead I have become a fan of what Google and Atlassian does.  For scope everyone is “Head of” something.  For example
  • Technical Account Management – Head of Americas
    • Technical Account Management – Head of East
      • Technical Account Manager – Head of Boston!
Originally these teams had titles like “Senior SE” or “Senior TAM”.  All at once we hey-chill-out-youre-the-teachers-petnormalized everyone to the same title.  Surprisingly there wasn’t much backlash.  Perhaps because it is harder to be upset when everyone has the same title as you.
A person shouldn’t need a fancy title to be able to work on the hard accounts, get the best training, the highest compensation, peer recognition, etc.  It should be based on performance and results.  If you are good – you get more opportunity.  If you stop being good you get less opportunity.  As a leader you need to fulfill your part to make these things happen.

2 thoughts on “Job Titles – the dangers of the “Senior Principal XYZ”

  1. I agree the title doesn’t matter, what’s more it’s kind of useless anyway. At least in my case I still have to explain what I do for the customer or what my role in the present meeting will be. Everyone knows what a plumber does, but sales engineer or SE are not totally standardized in job function from one company to the next.


  2. Exactly the mindset of people in higher management who don’t care about their employees’ career growth or feelings or care to give them some sense of achievement! As someone coming from a company which gives meagre salary hikes or no salary hikes yearly, a promotion to a higher job title gives a sense of achievement to us for all the hard work put in. And again, peer pressure is real. If you are in a job title which is 5-6 titles down your classmate’s or previous colleague’s job title you are 100% going to feel dejected and directionless which will have extremely bad impact on your performance. And please don’t tell me “You shouldn’t feel so”, because that is the most stupid thing you could ever tell someone in such a situation.

    If you can’t understand the meaning and value of a promotion then its just because you are too privileged in your career.


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