Is your Startup Ready for Titles?

In a startup things move constantly, roles change and within a few months people swing from one side of the spectrum to the other depending on their immediate needs. This works well when the team is small and people feel ownership of the whole project.

I’ve had multiple roles in Mirametrix, being the product manager a marketing manager and a sales manager when needed. The same happens with my sales team, who sometimes gets stuck creating landing pages or doing technical support. My engineers don’t only develop products, but do customer support and social media networking.

This creates a perfect balance of tasks for each person, which keeps their job interesting. It also adds a lot of value during discussions because everyone is involved and understands what’s happening. The feedback loop is much richer in ideas and suggestions.

So what happens when there are major organizational shifts and titles are assigned?

Spoiler alert: Potential synergy crashes ahead.

Titles are roles that come with expectations and meanings that vary between people and organizations. And they can cause stress and friction in places it didn’t exist before, getting in the way of your team’s interactions. If software developers are told that they should focus on product development for the next few months and that the product manager will be supervising the execution and deadlines, that can translate into something like: screw all the social media work that I’ve been doing!; if I’m going to get asked about every task I’m doing, I will just code from 9 to 5!

OOPS! Now that official titles are assigned, people are Googling titles and only doing the tasks that are listed under them. This will kill your startup energy!

This happens in relationships too! Transitions between dating, to serious relationships, to moving in together, to marriage can makes things and people behave in an entirely different way because of their notions and definitions of what these things are. I’ve been in relationships for years where everything was working perfectly, and we both took our share of responsibilities, while being very flexible with the other person and what they wanted to do.  It was like we understood each other without even talking and things just happened (this is the same feeling you want to have in your startup!). And then for some reason when ‘marriage’ comes into the picture, you start hearing job descriptions like: “As my husband you should be paying for the house” and “as my wife you should be doing the dishes”. You know this relationship is in for trouble!

But titles are given for a reason (they provide a communication roadmap), and especially as a company grows, it is something your team will need to deal with.  How do you navigate through this?

Communicate. Don’t be so naïve as to believe that your team won’t be affected by this shift.   This is where communication is critical to keep your startup alive and successful. Make sure you carefully chose your words and instead of ordering things to be done as a dictator, engage in a discussion where everyone is welcome to bring their ideas and opinions to the table. It’s important to also listen to others and make decisions that are informed by your team’s experience on the ground. The most effective problem solving starts with a clear understanding and analysis of the current situation, followed by a single question “What can we all do to achieve our objectives.”

Don’t let titles define your team. Titles don’t define who you are or what you can do, and they don’t define other people either. You might think that a specific person should do a specific task because of their title, but that may not be the best way to get things done. Don’t forget that every member of the team ultimately has the same goal in mind “building a successful company.” Be clear about what needs to be done and let the synergy happen.

Recognize that roles change. Titles may not change often, but roles do. Even if responsibilities change, act under the same principle that you did before: when you see a problem, fix it, as you always did. Encourage your team to do the same. If you have a good team, you can trust that people will want the business as a whole to be successful. They will take on the tasks they are more comfortable doing, but they will also do what needs to be done even if it’s less appealing to them. They did before, so there’s no reason they can’t now.

Take the time for team building.  Find a way to remove the stress and electricity from the situation. Before being titles, you are people and need to remember that not that long ago, everyone got along. Do something that will allow people to connect again on a personal level. Not everyone needs to be best friends, but people need to see the human in each other. It will help your internal communication when you are speaking to a person, not a title.

Oh and you might get requests to hand out new titles now that people realize that they’ve been doing more than what their Googled job description includes. Avoid doing it. Inflated titles become a danger to your startup. Do make sure every job description includes: ‘Additional tasks and responsibilities as determined by the company’s needs.’

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