Lead With Roles, Not Titles

By April 28, 2015Boomcast Blog

I have a love/hate relationship with titles. While titles make it clear on the surface about who does what, and makes communication to the outside easier, I hate the arbitrary walls titles create based on advice, past experience, and perceptions about what it means to “be” that title.

The problem is that a person in a growing or established company with the same title as someone in a startup plays a very different part in their company, requiring different skills and different mindsets and different hidden roles.

Individuals in a startup team don’t need titles- and sometimes I wish we could convince them to forgo it until the outside world really needed it. Get rid of the “my title means I do X” mentality. Let the ego wait a little longer.

Without titles to create artificial barriers, you are left simply with the co-founding team. When you are 2-5 people, there are so many challenges, problems, conversations, and craziness, it is the role of everyone to step up on anything they can bring value to, especially since you won’t be hiring a full time dedicated anything for awhile.

Instead consider the many roles and challenges that must be addressed. Not titles. Roles.

The Speaker
The Accountant
The Fundraiser
The Marketer
The Developer
The Designer
The Customer Developer
The Interviewer
The Evaluator
The Pitcher
The Seller
The Brander
The Architect
The Business Developer
The Scheduler
The Coordinator

I suspect you can come up with a few more. Unconsciously, people map these finite roles to a title without taking any consideration into if THE PERSON herself is the best one in the group.

Most recently, while working with a 3 person startup, we were discussing financial models and it came out that the CTO actually had a secret passion for numbers and all things business modeling. He still needed to learn some skills, but he had the talent for it. So guess who’s sitting in the financial conversations now? Don’t worry, the CEO still sits in too, but they now are stronger as a partnership because the unlikely titled person could fill a role better than the likely titled person. Extra benefit, it made them feel like a real co-founding team.

How to Shift to Valuing Roles Over Titles

  1. Sit down with the whole co-founding team and brainstorm “roles” in building a business (use the list above to get started)
  2. Take 5 minutes where people organize their own list of the roles in 4 groupings, where they fill a role…
    • very well, all the time, and enjoy it
    • sometimes and do ok
    • ok, but maybe sometimes drop the ball or need help
    • not at all or somewhat, but wish they could be more involved in
  3. Have each person talk about their role rankings, listen for overlaps or conflicts
  4. Spend the rest of the team trading roles or finding ways to help folks do more of what they think is best

People should be excited about how they will help the company be awesome. Yes, there will be a few left over roles that someone will have to pick up that may still not be fun, the chores.

So, in the end, lead with roles, not titles. Be a co-founding team that leverages strengths, talents and skills and be conscious about it. As your company changes and grows, repeat the exercise above, especially when someone new comes in. When someone new comes in, someone else will be giving up roles so this new person can play them. Being explicit about how that happens and what it looks like will get all of you normalized and up and running faster.

 

Erin brings design thinking, customer development and Innovation Lab approaches to teams as a collaborator, mentor and partner. You can follow Erin at @ErinStadler.