Originally posted on Forbes.com.
How important is the label you wear at work, the one that comes behind your name and serves as a descriptor? Whether that descriptor is internal marketing, external marketing, ego food or the line item in your daily life that inspires you, the answer is that it’s extremely important—especially now, when everyone is constantly building his or her brand and defining a platform.
It’s so important that former litigator Kat Griffin, who blogs at Corporette for an audience of ambitious women, recently concluded that there are cases now where she’d advise taking a title change over an actual raise, because, she says, “more and more industries are taking the Hollywood ‘Harvard grads start in the mailroom’ approach to hiring.”
Sometimes I feel as if job titles are con games. Let’s face it: For every music producer out there, there are only a handful who’ve had the success of Dr. Dre or T Bone Burnett—or any real success at all, for that matter. So how do we categorize someone who says, “Hey, I’m X, a music producer”? What about that sizzling new genre of journalists, the mommy bloggers? Any mom, wannabe parent, or observer of moms and kids can call herself a mommy blogger. How do we differentiate between genuine influencers like Rebecca Woolf of Girl’s Gone Child and Jenny Lawson of the Bloggess, and the everyday moms who were once journalists, editors or passionate diarists and now post occasionally but wear this label because—let’s admit it—mommy bloggers have juice. And although the real estate elite of New York City (the Rudins, Dursts, Roses, Fishers, Tishmans and Resnicks) are genuine and rarified, how many wannabe moguls are more slumlord of tiny manors than real royals.
But having followed what happens to people who trade away (or lose) their job titles during a transition, I know deep down that job titles matter. They’re not just the most important part of your LinkedIn profile. (Though, as some have argued, they are that too.) Whether you’re going back to school, moving into a new role in a new field or regrouping after a layoff, you can become all too aware that your discipline descriptor (legal, strategy, organizational behavior, etc.) is a buoy to keep you afloat in a world where everything communicates and everyone competes. You won’t drown without one, but you’d better be prepared to swim.
It can be treacherous water when the onetime C-suite executive finds himself or herself working as a consultant or freelancer. The transition between past life (success) and new life (quality of life) is often choppy. Is he or she better off spinning it as sabbatical, time off or a parallel universe during a complex job hunt? How should titles, descriptions and accomplishments on both sides be packaged?
These questions have personal relevance for me because I’m watching my partner go through a schizophrenic transition. On the one hand, he’s a top Connecticut criminal defense lawyer—in fact, a genuine Super Lawyer with more than 15 years in private practice and a real go-to guy if you’re alleged to have invaded a home, molested a child or driven drunk more than once. On the other hand, he has also just become a law student, working toward his master’s in Arizona in one of the world’s top programs, focused on indigenous people and the law surrounding Native Americans.
He’s absolutely smitten with his coursework, fired up with a new passion for American Indians’ rights, and yet the moment he leaves campus he feels adrift. He is struggling for nomenclature. Which is he—a top practitioner back East, or a student intern within the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson? Fairfield County big shot, or Pima County apprentice?
I see a useful example in Mitch Kurz, a former president of Young & Rubicam, who always gets his past integrated into articles about his present. (Case in point: this recent profile of him and his work as a math teacher and college counselor giving students college-assimilation tools at a South Bronx high school.) In fact, when I posted on Facebook to find people who had made major changes, many friends mentioned Mitch, reminding me that he’s the hero for our industry, someone who excelled in the insanity of Mad Ave, cashed out and traded up to college adviser/academic dean (according to LinkedIn), to do good, one student at a time.
Whether you’re redefining your personal platform, considering a title change at the same job you’ve had or undergoing a transition, it’s important to choose wisely when deciding what to put on your business card, paper or virtual. And maybe you’ll even resolve that you need more than one—for internal/external marketing, ego food and/or inspiration—to reflect your brand-new Brand Me.