Architects are not just architects any more. These days they are Design Principals, Directors of Projects, BIM Managers, Chief Fill-in-the-Blank Officers or Fill-in-the Blank Leaders (where that blank can be Culture, Systems, Global Sector, Collaboration, Marketing, Innovation, etc, etc).

These new titles tend to have two functions- one internally within a firm and one external to it. When leadership and promotion systems are working properly within a firm, titles can be used to define an employee’s compensation, level of responsibility and growth path. Externally, these self-same appellations are meant to distinguish key talent in a competitive market. They help outsiders, such as clients, peers, and recruiters, apply an immediate judgment on skill and experience so they can more accurately understand an employee’s exact role within the firm.

More often than not, however, fancy titles do none of these things. When the systems that support these titles go wrong, it can lead to employee resentment and such pretentious job titles that outsiders won’t even know what the person really does for a living.

To make things even more confusing, there is little commonality among firms in how they relate to their home grown title system. Some studios guard their Associate, Director, and Principal titles like the crown jewels, while other firms seem to hand out leadership titles to everyone like lollipops. There are practices that only have two leadership tiers even as others have now introduced a fifth tier- a move that seems to devalue the whole leadership structure.

Sometimes titles can be the make or break for a senior placement when firms refuse to give titles away, or obscure titles get “lost in translation” putting added pressure on an already cumbersome hiring process.

What’s in a Name?

There are two main problems with the majority of title systems these days. One is that people develop, grow, and learn at different paces and in different ways, and a title alone cannot possibly hope to convey where a person is really holding in his or her career. The second is that the process by which titles are created and assigned is often itself subjective and flawed. Many times, they are inaccurate classifications used to define a typically artificial hierarchy.

While that hierarchy may be a convenient way for senior leadership to group employees together for compensation and promotion purposes, if it is enacted arbitrarily, it can cause confusion and resentment that ultimately discourages good performance and pulls teams apart.

Changing the Rules of the Naming Game

I think the solution to all of this is a change in approach and perspective. Instead of trying to re-create a title, focus instead on recreating the processes of growth, leadership, and ownership that it is supposed to define. Then, the goal and the responsibility is on senior leadership to guide their employees, to lead them through experiences that will allow them to learn, document, and recognise their accomplishments, and also help them to quickly recover from any mistakes they make along the way.

Use the same old title, while implementing and selling the new process- both to employees and clients. Do that, and those same old titles become so much more. Fancy names alone won’t attract top talent, nor win more clients.

If you think its about the title, you’ve already lost the game.