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Free Yourself From Your Job Title

Learning how to express how you add value is critical for handling the times when your title only tells a little about what you do.

Your professional identity and your job title are not the same thing. One of the most persistent worries I hear about work is that people feel misunderstood, limited or worse, trapped by their titles. Professionals say things like:

  • The job I started with has grown, and my title doesn’t reflect all the things I do.

  • Or, my title suggests something here, but I don’t think that means the same things in other organizations.

  • Or, the job I’m interested in elsewhere has a ‘lower status title’ – how much does that matter?

  • Or, what if I want to explore work that isn’t usually associated with this title?

  • and, If I’m not who my title says I am, then who am I?

These statements all point to the complex relationship between what we’re called at work, and we what we actually do at work. Our work certainly plays a role in the development of our professional identity, but how can that be an asset, and not a limit?

Titles are not inherently terrible. They can help. They offer structure in large teams or organizations, they can signal growth, recognition and decision-making authority, help us know where to look for resources and ideas, and can serve as a filter in a complex world. But nearly everyone I know has a love/hate relationship with how they are referred to at work.

Maybe for many of you, your title helps explain what you do all day. Maybe you’re the Manager of this, or the Director of that, or the Vice President of this, that and the other thing, and for most people you come in contact with on a daily basis, this helps explain what you’re paid to do.

Maybe though, your responsibilities and impact have expanded so much over time that your title is no longer fully accurate. Maybe your title means something at your organization, but the more you meet and get to know your counterparts at other organizations, you realize you have things on your plate that they don’t, and don’t have things on your plate that they do. Maybe you’re drawn to opportunities at other companies but the titles they post seem less prestigious than what you already have, or the responsibilities you crave reside in a department with different nomenclature. And what on earth do you do if your title goes away through layoff or restructure? If you can’t count on your title, how do you explain what you do?

It can be deeply disorienting when a title no longer provides an anchor to defining your professional identity. Without the home base and quick reference short cut to answering the question of who you are at work, it’s likely that we’ll feel unmoored, floating, maybe even lost.

A job title is shorthand. It keeps us from doing the hard work of answering the core question that I love to explore: What is the work you do in the world?

One of my most poignant interviewees said it this way after layoff: “I relied so much on prestigious institutional affiliations to make me feel like I had some kind of home and I had some kind of worth and I had some kind of identity. … I was somebody’s daughter and somebody’s student, and then… somebody’s employee and then … somebody’s protégé … Having some other structure or entity to attach my own star to really [prevented] me from having to develop a sense of self and integrity and my own work and my own value. So in a way while some of that stuff drove me nuts I think it was also very comforting, very anchoring, very grounding and then suddenly I didn’t have that. ”

In the case above, this highly accomplished woman had let organizations and affiliations determine how to place herself and talk about herself in the world. Does this sound like you? A few ideas for moving forward:

  • Notice how you answer the (sometimes awkward) “So, what do you do?” question. Are you answering with your title, your place of work, whatever is printed on your business card? No shame here – we’re educated and trained to think about achievement as linear and upwards. Pay attention to your instincts and habits, and, let’s keep going.

  • Begin to explore a better way to talk about what you do professionally. Understanding and knowing how to talk about your value agnostic of your title or organization are ways to create professional wellness and resilience. What kinds of problems do you know how to solve? What opportunities have you created for your teams and organizations? What are you great at? What are you really proud of having accomplished at work? What unique skills and experiences do you bring to the table?

  • And always, notice what other terms you use to describe yourself; the other titles in your life. Parent, partner, creator, gardener, runner, reader, teacher, coach, sister. What else do you do that matters in your life? What role does work play in your life? Is it a source of income, learning, purpose, social connection, belonging, health insurance? Some of these, all of these? Expanding the titles we use expands our sense of self, and our options.

I advise anyone who will listen:

If our story is limited by the titles we’ve already had and the companies we’ve already worked for, then our OPTIONS are limited. If you can tell your story from your experience and expertise, you control the narrative.

Want to hear more about this? Eric Johnson and I talk more about this topic in Episode 4 of our podcast, Inside Job.

Helping you free yourself from your job title is core to how I work. Want to grow your options? Let’s talk.


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