[New Rules] The Name Game: What Job Title Should You Ask For?

Mike Latham, who I know through my work at Barclays Global Investors, is a good guy and a good

Job Titles


He gets things done, is transparent in his dealings, is funny, works hard, knows the business, and is respected and liked by the people with whom he works.

His job title – CEO of United States iShares – looks like a great example though of “paying” people with a title in order to retain them. While he does have a big job (and has done really well in it), is he really a CEO?

A common definition of a Chief Executive Officer runs like this paragraph from businessdictionary.com“Top executive responsible for a firm’s overall operations and performance. He or she is the leader of the firm, serves as the main link between the board of directors (the board) and the firm’s various parts or levels, and is held solely responsible for the firm’s success or failure.”

Mike, as the “US CEO of iShares”, reports to Lee Kranefuss, who is the CEO of iShares . Kranefuss reports to Blake Grossman, who is the CEO of Barclays Global Investors . Blake reports to Bob Diamond, who is the President of Barclays PLC . Diamond reports to Robert Varley, CEO of Barclays PLC .

You get the picture: the traditional definition of CEO fits only Varley.

Why is this important?

Job titles are like mini-billboards: they suggest what you do, and as such are a part your job description and walking personal advertisement. Stretch too far with your title and you invite cynicism and some behind the back mockery. Shrink the title and you undersell and sandbag yourself and your abilities, and potentially deleverage yourself if you deal with externals like customers and vendors, or internals if the firm is larger and / or title concious.

And in today’s choppy economy, you also want to watch out for looking overqualified – see this post from the Wall Street Journal: The New Résumé: Dumb and Dumber – Job Seekers Play Down Their Credentials to Avoid Looking Overqualified .

What should you do?

  1. Before accepting a new job with a firm find out the lay of the land at that firm in terms of job titles. If everyone who runs a division is a President, ask for the same thing if it’s not offered if you’re up for one of those roles. Ditto if the internal similars are Managing Directors.
  2. Research the sector to get similar information. While Latham’s title may look odd from the outside, financial services firms do use the CEO title to denote the head of a business unit: my acquaintance and really good SpencerStuart search exec Liz Fisher held a CEO and President title when she ran a unit of JPMorgan Asset & Wealth Management Group.
  3. Talk to people you know in the search business. How does the suggested title play? What are the downsides? What are the range of titles they have seen as a search person and what do they actually mean?
  4. If you’re already in a firm, look at similars in scope (and performance) to see if your title calibrates to their titles. If it’s shy of the other titles, start a conversation with your boss about the path to get your position retitled.

Job titles are funny things. When I worked as a Senior VP of Human Resources at McKesson I knew people who would take a cut in pay for a bump up in title,  a real life display of Frederick Herzberg’s motivation theory . Others cared less about title, but did care a great deal about pay.

Moral of the story.

Get a title that fits what you do and what you need to be successful.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


Job Titles: Photo credit: icerunner

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