Title Inflation

My first brush with title inflation was through a mixture of frustration and serendipity

It was our year of graduation from business school and the placement scene was bleak. Contributing to the bleakness were factors economic and also that we dared to think beyond the IIMs (no we did not actually end up in the Institute that currently is suing everyone and their dogs, but to a lesser known Institution). The act of defiance emerging not from masochism that some protagonists aggressively preach on television these days, but obvious lack of good CAT scores. What we lacked in pedigree we attempted to make up through cunning, resulting in regular Wednesday raids to the Library to pick up a copy of the Economic Times – or more specifically their jobs supplement “Creme de la creme”. We would comb through the advertisements and create the crudest form of database on a pirated version of Lotus 1-2-3. The intent was to apply for positions advertised in the paper and either land a job (bird in hand v in bush argument) or gain experience of handling real-life job interviews before campus recruitment commenced. This astute act of foresight was stalled by an abject dearth of jobs that sought out graduating MBAs. One razor sharp brain however pointed out that our educational and soft-skills were exactly matching with what advertisers were seeking for Managing Directors or CEOs . After a bit of debate – and some spilled coffee and tempers – we concluded that our only hope was if some company were willing to accept us with a title of “CEO (Trainee)”

A decade and a half later I know a name for this phenomena. Title Inflation.

The great thing about this phrase is that it can easily be defined by swapping out a few words from the classical definition of (financial) inflation. “Too many people chasing too few titles”. Let’s break this phrase and tackle the parts independently. “Too many people”. Yes, ambitious people were fewer in number earlier. My father got a job in a steel plant apparently when the plant manager was impressed with my dad’s soccer skills and he worked in the same plant till the date he retired with a Casio digital watch (called “electronic watch” those days), a Parker pen and a plaque. But kids these days? They have peer pressure from firms that dole out titles like Assistant Vice President when hiring freshers from colleges and not to forget the eternal pressure from wives for elevated titles to tout at the next kitty party. New titles are flaunted in social networks like LinkedIn where the rest of your three hundred and seventeen connections get to immediately know (and are nudged by the network to congratulate you, however reluctantly) of your latest conquest. That’s another three hundred and seventeen people who will walk up to their bosses asking for a promotion in the next few weeks. Take a conversion rate of 25%, assume they get onto the LinkedIn showoff mode and each has an average of two hundred connections – you get the drift, now do the math. Whatever number you got – and you had to represent it with an exponential, right? – is a giant number and that is precisely what the demand side of the equation looks like. Why do you think these hair replacement guys are doing such booming businesses these days?

Let us cast a glance at the “too few titles” side of things. Starkly different – almost antipodal to the first problem. Organizations were designed to look like pyramids and one way to make that happen was through a control on the titles and the number of people who could get those titles (okay, full disclosure – I have worked for a firm that had two CEOs but that was an aberration). Thus in the traditional scheme of things one joined a firm as a trainee, worked up to ranks of Assistant Manager, Manager and then to finally a Managing Director, with levels squeezing up at each subsequent climb. This design horribly fails the demands of the modern day careerist, who essentially is demanding a promotion every two years (assuming a 28 year worklife, that is fourteen titles if one – hypothetically – stays in the same organization). Organizations also evolve in the same Darwinian way as other forms of life, so over a period of time they have created methods to stave off this promote-me assault and yet flourish in the labor markets. They have invented titles where none exist. And subterfuge with genetic mutation of existing titles.

Coming back to my Dad’s era, I remember how reverentially we were asked to  treat the General Manager of the plant. The DGM – Deputy General Manager – commanded lesser respect. It is not uncommon these days to bump into Assistant DGMs (yes, their titles are not acronym-ized. ADGM would sound kinda funny, no?). This is where organization creativity met organizational structure met promotion thirsty employees (a Holy Trinity of sorts, yes). I remember once receiving a mail from my boss, marked to all my peers, expressing the need for a level between Team Lead and Project Lead. I was on my way to the airport that day and there were at least a dozen possible levels – sorry, names of levels – sent in by the time I had checked in. Creation of a new title is ratified by social acceptance. The pace of such acceptance has also accelerated these days fuelled by attrition. A disgruntled employee after receiving a word-play-title might decide to seek a job at competition, which then quickly discovers the new title and passes it on in their organization, thereby providing the social seal of acceptance and opening up room for even wider propagation.

On the other hand, mutation – or expansion of existing titles – is typically achieved by use of phrases like “Senior” (Senior Manager), “Deputy” (Deputy General Manager), “Chief” (Chief Architect. “Chief” is my personal favorite and prime recommendation for individual contributor roles. Like your firm has just one “UI Designer” and he’s clamouring for a promotion. Go right ahead and make him “Chief UI Designer”. Nothing changes) and “Junior” (Junior Foreman). This list is – like they say – illustrative and not exhaustive. For an organization that operates in multiple geographies, the possibility of word-play-titles is incredibly magnified because they have at their disposal ways of slicing and dicing geographies in addition to the conventional tools mentioned above. Much rather than be surprised when encountered with a “Global Chief Project Leader” you should spend time counting the words that represent the most likely number of times the person has approached his boss with a successful bump-me-up demand.

A lot of my skeptic friends say this won’t continue for long. Bullshit, I say and point them to this phrase called new-normal. I also hope for the sake for some humor we do not see a mean reversion to vanilla titles like “Partner”, “Manager” and so on. Yawn, how boring and 2008 these titles are
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That’s about my experience – what’s yours? What exotic titles have you come across? Write, no?

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Bird-Tweeting-Revolution-Creating Fuss

“Sir, we have come up with this new innovative idea and wanted to run it past you. This is something we have moonlighted on for the past six months”. The group of youngsters looked visibly excited and their leader, in a striped shirt and chinos, held a laptop that obviously had some demo version of the “innovative idea”

“Nice”, the boss looked up, setting aside his Blackberry. “Give me an elevator pitch – I have a hard stop in 15 mins”

“Sir, this is something that will revolutionize the way people communicate”

“Hold it just there. We are an ERP company. What’s communication got to do with our business?”

“Umm, sir, we see your point. But if you just for one moment look outside, you will see how social tools like Instant Messaging, Skype, Facebook – for that matter RSS feeds – are changing the way we communicate and build networks. So yes, this is not to do with ERP, but we daresay just as interesting”, the young leader looked a little flustered but he gamely held on to the conversation

“Okay, proceed”, the boss man said, not sounding either entirely convinced or terribly interested

“This is like a communication paradigm where you can send instant updates that can be seen, essentially, by anyone with an Internet connection. So it is like an ocean where everyone pours in their bits of communication. But most interestingly it is possible for a user to create a list – a group if you may – of people who he is most interested in and he will get their updates instantly without having to search them out”

“Oh, that is like a chatroom combined with IM. That problem is already solved”, boss said, “and what’s wrong with email to multiple recipients?”

“But sir, in this you don’t need to know the email ID of people you are updating. They choose to get updates from you. In fact the analogy we have is that of a bird tweeting in the morning. When it tweets it never knows all who might listen to its tweet”

“Have you considered privacy? I may not like someone- let’s say the VP of Product Engineering at a competitor firm to see my updates”

“Great point Sir. So you can stop specific people from receiving your updates”

“Won’t work. They could take you to court because you just said that all updates are available for everyone. And look son, if I want to get someone’s updates I will just connect with him on Facebook. You are solving a problem that does not exist”

“That is exactly why this product is revolutionary, Sir. It creates an Open Facebook. A Facebook where everyone can follow everyone. At will. And similarly one could block access to whoever they don’t want to send updates to. And there is an immediacy of these updates because they must be less than 140 characters”

“What? What do you think you can communicate within 140 characters? Won’t work”

“But sir this could be the novel touch – forcing brevity on the world and..”

The boss interjected impatiently. “Like the world wants brevity. Have you asked, for example, our marketing guys about whether they want to send short messages to our clients?”

“Umm, we did Sir. The response, I am afraid was not very positive. They said they already have a Facebook page and that is where they connect with clients. And they were apprehensive that an open thing like this could be disastrous if there are too many negative things said about our products”

“See, those are my sentiments exactly. Look, the matter of communications is over-solved by the industry. We do not need another channel. My prognosis is that, if anything, there will be consolidation as people will want lesser channels to communicate, not more”

“Research done by sociologists however point that…”, the young leader, quite pushed to the brink made an attempt to recover

“Now look, as I said, I have a hard stop. But I would strongly advice you to not bother with Bachelor of Arts subjects like Sociology and Psychology and rather concentrate on core ERP technology. This bird tweeting in the morning thing is all hogwash”

“Sir, we – and all of us here – understand that while this is a new concept, it could revolutionalize…”

Visibly impatient, the boss curtly cut off the leader. “Revolutionize? Like what – start revolutions? People will start using this platform and start political movements”, he thundered, sarcasm oozing from his words. “I recommend you please go and focus on your core work., young men. Please don’t make me scrutinize your time-sheets for the past six months when you were building this bird-tweeting-revolution-creating product of yours”

This conversation never happened. But it could very well have. This is possibly how Twitter would have been killed if born within the precincts of a large technology company

PS: There could very well be a counter argument to this fictional anecdote. Is there a way this idea could have been pitched – to the same protagonists – to yield different (positive) results?

Twelve Word CV

When I asked him for a short bio that could go at the foot of his guest post on CDI, Basab Pradhan wrote back a one liner. I pointed out that this was far too much brevity for someone who has had a distinguished career like him. “Let it be that way”, was a short reply I received.

Basab Pradhan has come back to head up global sales for Infosys, a position he held before he moved on in 2005. Infosys faces tough challenges as it fends off competition, rebuilds the organization and also writes a better succession plan for the top post. They have made a good first move by getting Basab back – and in a familiar role where he can make a lot of difference.

Basab was co-authoring a book on Indian Offshore Services to India before taking up this assignment. Given Basab’s rich experience it would have been a great read – I hope the book stays on track.

Why does India not have software product companies – was the question I had posed to Basab, that prompted him to write a guest post for CDI. Read on