One of the main drivers for the increasing worthlessness of titles is what I call job title escalation. That is the relentless rise of ever grander job titles for ever more junior staff. (Some clever organizations deliberately play this game, having realised some of their staff will actually put up with worse T&Cs in return for an ego boosting job title).
When I started my career a Managing Director had a very senior role – he or she was the boss. This is still true in some organizations, but I have come across businesses with hundreds of Managing Directors. I even found one firm in which all the sales people were given the title MD just to impress customers. (I somehow doubt this was very successful, but you never know!) In one of my current clients the most senior managers are Divisional Presidents and their direct reports are VPs. It’s a large organization, so a VP is a pretty senior role. Under VPs are Directors. Yet I worked not long ago for a bank in which the hierarchy was reversed and VPs worked for Directors – in that organization being a VP is the first rung on the management ladder. In other words, a VP for them is quite a junior role. Another example is the opaque title of Director. The job title Director can mean someone who sits on a company board, but it is also used regularly as just another middle management grade.
Functional job titles are not immune from escalation. Many of the people I work with are project managers. In some industries being a Project Manager can be a senior role, in others Project Managers are seen as juniors and these organizations are awash with nominally more senior Program Managers and even Program Directors - job titles we happily managed without some years ago. (I know there is a difference between a Project Manager and a Program Manager in theory, but in practice the job titles are often awarded on less than clearly deserved grounds).
A few years ago there was an attempt to get round this by introducing a new set of senior job titles – the ‘C’ level jobs – CEO, COO, CFO, CIO and so on. But now even these are increasingly worthless as you can find organizations with dozens of CEOs and COOs.
We could of course go on and on inventing ever more grand titles. But I have another answer – ignore them! I largely ignore job titles unless I understand the culture and norms of the organization they have been set in. One person’s middle-manager is another’s CEO – if you don’t know which it’s best to be sceptical. If I need to position people, I ask what they do, what their responsibilities and accountabilities are, who they influence and interact with. From this I give myself a picture of their seniority.
Of course, many of the people I work with are independents, free lancers or entrepreneurs. If you work for yourself you can give yourself any job title you like. Fancy being the Grand Archdeacon and Overlord of Procurement? Hey presto - you can be. But you rarely see this because in those communities we have (mostly) moved on. People in these groups don’t care about job titles at all – in fact a concern with job titles just shows how passé you are!