I just launched a new company with two of my pals and we’re already arguing about job titles. I want to be “CEO” but they’re saying that makes no sense because we should be peers and our titles should reflect the equality of our positions in the firm. It’s kind of a goofy thing to argue about, but we’re rather stuck.
Actually, it’s not a goofy thing to argue about at all, and I know from personal experience that a startup where everyone involved is a peer and where it’s going to be an “egalitarian democracy” really ends up not working in the long run. I know, I did just that with my two partners years ago when I founded The Internet Mall back in the dotcom era, in Silicon Valley.
I strongly believe that the best companies are those where each partner has a clear sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the others, and where there’s an agreement about who owns which aspecs of the business. Maybe one person is the technical lead, another does sales and marketing and the third is the day-to-day operations person, for example.
Once you’ve agreed upon these roles, codify them with specific job titles like “Technical Lead” or “Chief Technology Officer”, “VP of Marketing” or “Director of Sales”, and “Chief Operations Officer”, etc. In my experience, one person does need to have the “boss” hat too, ultimately, whether that’s the tech person, the marketing/sales person, or the operations expert. For them, the title might be “President and COO”, to capture that relationship.
I’ll also say – with the benefit of the proverbial 20:20 hindsight – that if you argue and fight about titles and roles, you have a core problem with your business that you shouldn’t ignore lightly. Might be a red flag for the future of the business. Too many chiefs, and all that…
Note that the titles you have on your business cards can be more lighthearted and humorous even given what I’m saying, so if you want to be “Chief Rocket Scientist” or “Grand Poobah” that’s fine and can be quite fun. In fact, when I worked at HP’s quite serious R&D labs in California, we had badges that identified us as part of “Muppet Labs” (I still have mine!) and even snuck entries for some of the more well-known muppet characters into the HP corporate phone directory. (sorry Bill & Dave!)
There’s a credibility piece to this, however. Just as a one-person company where the individual’s title is “President and CEO” is a bit daft, it’s also the case that if you have a meeting with senior executives at a Fortune 50 company and hand them a card identifying you as “Bottle Washer” it might work against you. What works in some situations can be a bit of a disaster in others.
Fortunately, it’s really inexpensive to print up more than one business card so I think it’d be quite reasonable to have the fun/goofy job title card that you distribute at social gatherings and conferences, and another, more serious job title card for important professional meetings.
I hope that helps you three work out your titles and positions. Remember, a title’s just a label: if you can’t collectively figure out the core job responsibilities and your reporting structure, you’ve got bigger problems a’brewin’ and need to address those sooner, not later.
Oh, and for the record, I have two business cards in my wallet. My serious management consulting business title is “Online Communications Strategist” and my silly card is built around the visual theme of AskDaveTaylor.com but still has a relatively serious title: “Editorial Director”.