It’s no surprise that on a visceral level, a person’s job title is often an integral part of his or her identity. Your name, title and company are the three coordinates that uniquely position you professionally. Most people treat a title as shorthand for what someone has accomplished and what they can do—even if the reality may be otherwise. This leads to a raft of common assumptions: an EVP at one company is more senior than an SVP at another; as one moves up in one’s career, one’s title should progress accordingly.
But while those assumptions hold in the military (from where we get the idea of orderly, well-defined ranks) they don’t always make sense in the business world, where there is no standard definition of what “senior vice president” means. Not only can the same title mean different things at different companies, but it can mean different things at the same company at different points in time. An earlier-stage company, for example, can be fairly generous with the coveted “executive vice president” designation as a tool for recruitment and retention. But as the company grows, eventually the CEO ends up with far more direct reports than he or she can realistically manage, and responds by rearranging the org chart to cut the number of EVPs in half. Or there may be a broader “title deflation,” in which someone who once would have been hired as a vice president now comes in as an executive director.
These moves might be perfectly sound. The problem comes when one tries to recruit an EVP to take an SVP role, or a vice president to become an executive director. In these cases, the issue of title is almost always a sticking point, at least initially. It can usually be easily overcome, however, by focusing on the factors that really matter—the actual level of responsibility, the opportunity to make an impact on the organization, and yes, the compensation.
But if it’s important for candidates to keep perspective on the issue, companies need to understand where they are in relation to their peers. If they have been taking a hard line on promotions and titles because they were too lenient in the past, it may make sense to ask if the pendulum has swung too far the other way. A title isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing, either.