I received some unexpected feedback last week about a previous blog post. The person was hesitant to share their comments with me publicly, worried I might be offended. "Please!" I practically screamed. I love to hear feedback, whether positive or negative. I'm excited someone is bothering to read what I write.
Their next comment: I was wrong. OK, I steeled myself. See if you can take the heat. They pointed out that I was incorrect in stating that titles don't matter. "Can you give me an example?" I asked. As a junior business analyst and aspiring PM, their title often excluded them from senior meetings. This kept them in the dark about upcoming opportunities, so they weren't sure which skills to cultivate to compete successfully for new positions. Titles do matter.
My response? I stand by my original statement--with one clarification. Titles may matter to others, but you should avoid letting them matter (too much) to yourself.
Why do we have titles, anyway?
Corporations certainly appreciate titles. The Muse states that "people use your job title to quickly understand how you fit into an organization, what you do, and your level of expertise or authority." So, it's a proxy for figuring out who you are and what you are capable of (and supposed to be) doing. Titles are also a recruitment tool. They are a way of labeling and categorizing employees and prospective employees--thereby introducing the dangerous issue of being overlooked or dismissed based on your rank.
What are the shortcomings with titles?
Even the most organized PM needs to recognize the limitations of categorization. Assuming that those who share a title share the same abilities is a form of stereotyping. It also assumes that categories that humans have created are infallible, when the reality is anything but.
Even if your organization agrees upon a common set of titles, this schema may not transfer externally. Different companies have different titles for similar skill levels. That's why the job search site, Ladders, advocates using a LinkedIn headline that is position-agnostic. Including your specialty area instead of your title helps prospective employers understand your skills.
How can I get people to notice me if my title suggests I'm low on the totem pole?
The issue that my reader mentioned has more to do with communication than anything else. Want a way to signal that you're ready to move up? Assume responsibilities at the next level by managing up:
Diagnose and address the problem. Is your title preventing you from receiving relevant information that would help you perform better? If the answer is yes, speak with your boss. If this seems daunting, realize that, in most cases, people are not deliberately trying to keep you in the dark. For instance, senior decision makers may believe that middle management is relaying this information. Middle managers either forget to do so or don't think the information is important enough to convey. Be proactive about asking your boss what types of updates you'd like to hear, so they know to perk up their ears in what may seem to them like dull senior meetings. Most will happily comply, always on the lookout for ways that they can add value to your monthly career check-ins.
Pull rank. Remember when I said titles should matter to everyone but you? Be brave! If your talk with your boss went nowhere, go straight to the source and talk to the senior person about why this information isn't making its way to you. Offer a suggestion for how you can get the information you need. Maybe it's worth having you attend the meeting yourself! Gasp.
Get creative. If your boss's boss stonewalls you, find a workaround. A few years ago, I was not permitted to attend a work planning meeting based on my rank. In reality, I was a task lead responsible for filling the time of half a dozen employees. Not being in that meeting was counterproductive not only for me but for the entire team. I wish I had been brave enough to talk to my boss about joining the call. Instead, I found someone who trusted me enough to have me listen in and secretly contribute. Moral of the story: sometimes you have to bend the rules to get ahead.
My organization is super hierarchical. I've tried every trick in the book, but my title is still a major roadblock. Help!
Read. If others won't share information with you, go find it yourself. Subscribe to industry updates. Join LinkedIn groups about your chosen field. Google industry publications and subscribe to blogs. Keep tabs on upcoming conferences in your field, and talk to your boss about collaborating on a presentation. Voracious reading combined with first-hand PM knowledge of client work gives you a distinct advantage when it comes to pitching the next big idea.
Stay organized. The next time an opportunity comes up, be prepared. Update your resume quarterly so you have it on hand for that position you won't hear about till the last minute. If you can send out your resume in 3 hours and someone else has to wait 24, then you're already ahead of the game. Oh--and if that position calls for someone with even some of your qualifications--be entitled. Apply anyway. The worst they can do is say no.