With all the recent news about Tony Hsieh's decision to flatten Zappos' organization, Girish Navani's (C.E.O. of eClinicalWorks) comments about titles in the workplace really struck me:

We don’t have titles. I used to call myself co-founder, but then some of our larger customers wanted to know who the C.E.O. was. Our whole company is built around teams. The only leadership position you can have is team leader. Your career grows through bigger projects and initiatives.

Full disclosure: when I ran my skateboarding shoe company for several years, the only titles my partner and I allowed was "worker." Our thinking was that if you couldn't identify the person's job by what he did, he probably wasn't doing his job all that well. And when I worked for a brief time at Adidas, I put "corporate fat" on my business card. (I figured that there's an unlimited supply of organizational fat, so it would be unlikely that I'd ever get cut. My boss wasn't amused, and mentioned that when I was fired eight weeks later. But that's another story.) So I'm always interested in the elimination of titles.

But leaving aside my preference for a non-hierarchical, low-title workplace, Navani is perspicacious in his assessment of human nature when he says:

Sometimes you have individuals who seek titles. But what I won’t do is create an unsustainable title warfare — today they’re a V.P., tomorrow a senior V.P., then executive V.P. New titles get old within the first day of having them. Titles are self-fulfilling, short-term objectives that you get tired of. Then you aspire for another title, and then you essentially create a business whose growth path of individuals now becomes their title growth rather than serious accomplishments and creating change in the industry.


Titles very often do create "title warfare." We've all worked with and for people who seem to prize the text on their business card over the organizational results. Human yearning for status often trumps the need of the larger group. And yet there are companies that have succeeded beautifully without titular trappings. Semco is one. CloudFlare is another. And Zappos is (sort of) following that path as well with its adoption of the holocracy.

I'm not suggesting that you mindlessly discard everyone's titles today. But I do believe that it's worth considering what effect all those titles has on overall organizational performance. It might be deeper than you think.

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