Should I Use My CEO Title Behind My Name?. . and other Questions

Business titles are interesting things. The right title in the right situation can be extraordinarily helpful: the wrong title in the wrong setting makes uphill sledding suddenly look easy.

What is frequently complicating is that what a title means can be interpreted broadly, and how it impacts you can do the same. I have worked with a number of people who would gladly (well, maybe not gladly, but they’d do it) trade titles for a piece of compensation because the title meant more for them then cold cash.

A piece titled The Name Game: What Job Title Should You Ask For? chronicled four things to should consider before you sign on to a job with a title. Why? Job titles are like mini-billboards: they suggest what you do, and as such are a part your job description and walking personal advertisement.

Last week someone posed the question “Should I use my CEO title behind my name?

The short answer for that question, as well as many things with regards to titles, mobile phone numbers, residence phone numbers, etc. on business cards is that it depends.

Most senior managers in a firm are well-known by everyone. You don’t have to have a title on your door, business card or (for those old school places having reserved parking) your parking space: you have one on your forehead. It says: senior manager. Only employees with poor social skills and low EQs will behave badly with you. When I worked as SVP of Human Resources with McKesson, for example, there were any number of people who were overly polite within the context of the corporation – and who probably would not have given me the time of day if I were a stranger on the street.

There are a host of ways people can sense that someone is the boss and it comes out in a variety of subtle and not-so subtle ways. As an excutive coach to CEOs, other C-level managers, and their leadership teams, those behaviors can be understood, coached and taught.

Despite what the program Undercover Boss suggests, it’s not only a matter of changing clothing for senior managers to act differently, there’s a host of other behaviors that drive organizational ascendency. Steve Jobs, Meg Whitman, or Larry Ellison in cut-offs and tank tops are still going to act like CEOs – the learned behaviors are highly ingrained in them at this point.

One of the elements in good exec coaching is assessing whether someone is leveraging their skills and organizational position, or doing the opposite. A host of subtle things such as business card titles, how you dress, and office set-up can convey more or less organizational clout and it helps to understand what you have in terms of those assets to help figure out how you can accomplish what you want to do.

The tricky part is whether you should carry a title on your business card for external purposes. And while there is no reason you couldn’t have two sets, simplicity suggests one. Externals (think vendors, customers, regulatory officials, etc.) may not have same keen ear and eye for the in-company cultural markings of “the boss” or senior staff. The may, for example, not know who the CEO is unless someone tells them. Last, some cultures – think Japan for example – attach a different value or symbolism to the title on a business card then what the generally more egalitarian North American culture might.

Three decades or so ago the old (as in pre-NationsBank acquisition ) Bank of America had something 18 different types of specified business cards for their employees: each variation signaled internal status and rank. Borders on the card that are in gold and engraved? Senior rank. Plain black and white with no engraving? More junior.

Early in my professional career I worked with a Southern California based manufacturing company where the cultural norm – set by the CEO –  was not to use titles on correspondence, and frequently business cards. It was a habit that carried with me for several years, including three or four stints as a VP or SVP. I never found that it was a liability, and in fact it was an asset at times because externals weren’t exactly sure with whom they were dealing unless they asked.

My advice to the person asking about the CEO title? Keep your title off the card. The fact that you’re comfortable enough to ask the question suggests that you don’t need it.

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 and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.