The small business owner's guide to crazy job titles

Tony Featherstone

Head Ninja, Chief Rock Star, Jedi Master and Chief Imagineer are just a few crazy job titles doing the rounds as startup companies and their young founders shake up stodgy job descriptions.

Then there are self-appointed job functions: the Amplifier, who multiplies the firm’s work; the Personal Enabler, who is basically a souped-up secretary; the Connector, who builds networks inside and outside the firm; and the Facilitator, who supposedly brings people together.

In the background are cash-strapped companies dishing up gourmet job titles to motivate underpaid staff. The teenage sales manager becomes a Senior Business Development Manager, the General Manager becomes a Vice President, and so on.  It’s corporate nonsense.

Of course, some companies are too cool for job titles. There’s no CEO, CFO, Company Secretary or anything else starting with a C. Just Bob, Jane, Bill and Mary. It’s corporate zen.

Good on these companies for reinventing job titles. The world doesn’t need more Project Officers, Executive Assistants, Editors, Senior Accountants and other boring job titles. Or silly military-style hierarchies where job titles show rank and status – and make companies seem like Downton Abbey.

In some ways, rigid job titles are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, collaboration and adaptability in the digital economy. They can pigeon-hole staff rather than encourage them to work across functions and reinvent their job description.

But loading up on New Age job titles, put on your brown cardigan, at least for moment, and consider the downside.

We’re not suggesting you play it safe and become your firm’s Chief Caveman when it comes to taking risks with job titles. Instead, think how they will affect your company in the startup phase and when it’s a larger organisation.

Here are five risks to consider.

You are now the Very, Very Senior Manager

We’ve all been there in one way or another. Impressive young employees complain about being underpaid and underloved, but you can’t afford to give them a pay rise. So you give them more responsibility, a grander job title, and pump their tyres with corporate hot air. It works until they realise they are paid well below their peers in their firm or industry.

Take care with job title inflation: it can explode in your company’s face.

Hot startups often give young staff way too much responsibility and expect them to pole vault over the corporate ladder.

Lose the force: Firing a Jedi Master

Granted, Jedi Master is a hot job title in a startup that makes smartphone Apps. But how do you write a formal job description for that role? More to the point, how would you fire a Jedi Master if he or she sucks at the job, without legal hell or being subject to sneaky Jedi mind control.

What happens when the Chief Rock Star takes cocaine at work, tattoos their face, and cavorts with office groupies?

On a serious note, never forget that great entrepreneurial truth: hire slow, fire quickly. Crazy job titles and loose job descriptions make the second part of that maxim harder.

No Head Ninjas, please

Being the Head Ninja or Chief Avenger might work for a tiny startup that makes computer games for Asian teenagers. But what happens when the firm deals with a large, boring company that is not used to non-conformist job titles?

It’s hard enough already for unknown ventures to convince big companies to take a chance on them. You think unusual job titles make the firm stand out, but they scare the hell out of boring corporate managers whose secret job title is Chief Sheep Officer.

Born to Run: How do you promote a Rock God?

Hot startups often give young staff way too much responsibility and expect them to pole vault over the corporate ladder. So locking staff into crazy titles at the start means less scope to evolve titles as roles expand upwards or sideways.

What happens when the Rock God demands to become a Senior or Executive Rock God, or hire an executive assistant to the Rock God?

Yes, I jest. But homogenous job titles that can be elevated, as the startup goes from five staff to 500, have their place. Consider how wacky jobs titles will work when the startup needs venture capital, has a board, and lots of staff and customers.

Take care with job title inflation: it can explode in your company’s face.

Help, my CV reads like a comic book

What happens if the startup fails, as invariably happens for the majority, and the founders need a real job? The role of Chief Avenger might transport them to another universe in startup land, but it won’t land them a safe corporate job if needed.

Smart entrepreneurs always have a Plan B. For some, that involves developing skills and work experiences and maintaining their CV, not wrecking it with silly job titles.

I admit: there are a lot of what ifs, what happens when, and Chief Boring Person with the above advice. So here’s a final thought: why not have two job titles -- or a professional alter-ego, so to speak.

Be the Chief Rain Man inside your office and with other startups, and present yourself as Senior Accountant to larger companies and the outside world.

Even Head Ninjas eventually need a day job.

Tony Featherstone

Tony Featherstone is a former managing editor of BRW and Shares magazines.

Image: JD Hancock, Flickr CC license