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Gut Check: Are You Living Up to the Expectations of Your Job Title?

Everybody wanted to be a vice president.

This was the dilemma facing a client being served by one of my colleagues in Zurich. My colleague’s client had a team of young managers, all of whom wanted to have the lofty title of “vice president” added to their business cards.

The client related how everyone on her team was convinced a more senior and prestigious title would help them impress clients and sell more product. However, the client was really unsure about whether any of them deserved to be called vice president at this stage in their careers.

My colleague asked me what advice she should provide to her client.

As I thought about my answer, I immediately recalled an experience earlier in my career when I worked in the pharmaceutical industry. At the time, my role was to head up the learning and leadership function of my company.

Given my role, I was constantly approached by sales people from training companies who were pushing all variety of programs. My assistant was a great gatekeeper, and knew which meetings to book, and which ones to avoid.

She did book one meeting with an individual representing a vendor that I had done business with before. When I looked at the calendar entry, I saw that I was meeting with the Senior Vice President – Client Solutions.

On the appointed day, I went to greet my guest in reception. To my surprise he was quite a young person. As we began to talk and I learned more about him, I learned he was new with the company, and new to the industry. The simple fact was that this SVP had very little experience in sales or with the product he was selling.

In the end, I found he really didn’t have the experience to help my company address some of our critical development needs.

My reaction had nothing to do with his age. I was left with a negative impression largely because he clearly didn’t deserve the grandiose title he carried into the meeting.

I find job titles to be a fascinating topic in the business world. The amount of time people spend obsessing over their titles is actually quite remarkable and often serves as fodder for stories in the business media.

It’s not unusual for impressive titles to be provided as a perk to attract or retain talent. A company may not be able to pay someone more or give them an actual promotion, but they can always boost their title as a temporary measure.

Other times, companies feel that some of their employees need a certain level of title (like the young salesperson who met with me). The rationale is that to be successful in selling to senior executives, you need a senior executive title.

In the end, my real concern is not about the title, but rather if a person is actually living up to the expectations of his or her title. This idea is especially important when someone is in a leadership role.

That is largely what I told my colleague in Zurich.

Sure, her client could appease those managers with a vice president title, but in the end, the title doesn’t make the leader. They are still managers, dressed up like vice presidents. What would this client do if those managers said they wanted to have CEO titles? Would she consider giving it to them? I doubt it.

I suggested our client be firm and explain clearly the expectation of what it means to be a vice president and what they need to do to earn the role, rather than treat it as some form of entitlement.

What about you? Have you stumbled your way into having a grandiose leadership title? If you have, good for you.

But the real question you should be asking yourself is this: Are you truly fulfilling the expectations of the title and the role? If you aren’t, I can tell you with all certainty that everyone around you knows it. You aren’t fooling anyone, other than yourself.

In fact, taking on that title and designation when you haven’t earned it or aren’t ready for it may only hurt your career. Worse, it may paint you as an imposter. Is this what you want for yourself?

This week’s Gut Check for Leaders asks: Are you living up to the expectations of your job title?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its third edition.

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