Editorial: Titles

Jul 11, 2014

Five thoughts from Mark Zweig about titles and how they are often dished out without much consideration.

Title proliferation in the A/E/P business is alive and well. While intentions may be good – to keep people happy, grant “promotions,” etc. – the more titles you have, the unhappier people will be with whatever their title is. Titles are given easily but almost never taken away because the negative morale effects of doing so are rarely judged to be worth it. Here are a few more thoughts on titles in A/E/P and environmental firms:
  1. Strict role definitions. Some people want you to give them very clear role definitions in terms of exactly what is in their job description versus what isn’t. Even though HR experts advocate this as proper practice, I will usually resist. I don’t like tight role definitions and never have – especially in smaller companies where individuals may be required to wear any number of different “hats” throughout the day. Plus, if someone is good at something and has a strong interest in doing it I am more likely to want to encourage that, versus discourage it.
  2. Principals and associates. The age-old debate about what the functional roles of principals and associates are is alive and well in this business. The problem is that these titles don’t denote function at all. They are status titles, usually surrounding one’s place in the ownership pecking order, so they can’t be defined that way. This is NOT to say “principal-in-charge” isn’t a functional role on a project. That person is the one who typically has the deepest/longest relationship with the client and acts as a “safety valve” to make sure that relationship is enhanced by the firm’s performance on the project-at-hand.
  3. Vice presidents. There are companies in this business where a “Vice President” title means something – i.e., typically one that may have some contracting authority limits tied to it. And then there are companies that give out lots of these titles – in some cases to people they DON’T plan on offering ownership interests to – so the title can actually take on a negative connotation inside the firm.
  4. PM roles. Rarely is “Project Manager” a full-time job function for people working in firms in this business. More often than not it’s a project assignment bestowed upon someone who has another full-time job as a studio head, team leader, department head, designer, architect, or engineer. Of course, the rarely-spoken truth is that one of the problems associated with this role is that no one – or only a very few people – actually report to the PM, which makes it difficult to really hold them accountable for project performance.
  5. New title = more pay. Some people believe – make that MOST people believe – that along with a new title they should automatically get more pay. My best advice on this one is to discourage that thinking. Perform first in the new role (if the title actually defines one; and many don’t) and THEN we’ll take a look at pay to see if it needs to be adjusted.
Mark Zweig is the chairman and CEO of ZweigWhite. Contact him with questions or comments at mzweig@zweigwhite.com. This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1063, originally published 7/14/2014. Copyright© 2014, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

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