Un-Titled

As with every time I write this blog, the views here are my own, and not the official stance of Riot Games. When I reacted to our Great Place to Work ranking or our new campus headquarters, I had a strong sense that I was aligned to at least a good portion of Rioters. Today, well… This is a topic I haven’t discussed widely. As a result, take today’s musings as just that: A way of getting some half-formed thoughts out of my head and into someplace where we can discuss them.

I’ve been thinking about job titles.

As long as I’ve had Human Resources roles, across five disparate industries, the question of “title equity” comes up. Person A is angry because Person B is a Director or Vice President or Senior Manager or something and thinks he deserves the same title. Or maybe Person C runs a tiny part of the business in a remote country, so why does she get to be a Managing Director when I worked so hard to get that same title and have such a bigger job? These disgruntled arguments rarely end well, and usually lead to some sort of ill will towards a manager, company, or in many cases HR.

When I moved from Starbucks Coffee Corp to Riot, I went from being a Senior Vice President to a Vice President. Some people—including my weekly LinkedIn recommended jobs feed—thought I’d been demoted, when in fact Riot represents the most autonomy, impact, and accountability I’ve ever had. The term “Senior Vice President” (much less Executive Vice President, Chief People Officer, or Chief Human Resources Officer), I’ve had to explain, doesn’t exist at Riot.

When I worked in retail, several people scheduled time to talk with me about their career and started the conversation with, “So, I’ve been a Director for X years. I think it’s time for me to be a Senior Director.” I then busted out my career homework assignment and sent them away, bewildered that having a career conversation has anything to do with titles.

The two most painful projects I’ve ever been involved in have been “title architecture” projects, trying to make titles consistent across functions, products, and regions. It’s a TON of detailed, arduous work, and usually causes more argument than clarity. I literally just stared off into space and shivered thinking about those projects.

Which is all to say that job titles have led to a lot of confusing and frustrating experiences that consistently catch me off guard. As I like to think of myself as somewhat of a learner, the fact that I keep tripping up on the same topic concerns me.

As I reflect on the purpose of job titles, here’s what I come up with. Why are job titles valuable?

  1. Titles describe what a person does. Need to know who to talk to about a candidate referral? Go talk to someone with “Recruiting” in their title. A Systems Architect probably, you know… architects systems and stuff.
  2. Titles are a proxy for scope of responsibility. The assumption here is that organizations need to know who’s in charge of something, which is efficient for communicating within and outside of the company. Who do I go to if I have a marketing complaint? Well, someone who’s a Director of VP of Marketing is a good start, because they’re supposedly occupying a leadership role in that function.
  3. Titles are a signal of rank in a hierarchy. The assumption here is that each rank trumps lower ranks. So companies can have “Vice President and Above” meetings to align on strategy (because “strategy” is apparently only something leaders discuss, which is weird in and of itself) or decide that if you’re running into a roadblock with a Manager you can go find the Director to overrule her.
  4. Titles are a signal of status. The assumption here is that being more “senior” gives you certain perks, whether it’s a parking spot, or an office, or a personalized Christmas letter from the CEO. Titles, then, are useful motivation tools and can be something that helps retention.

Recently, as you know, I’ve found myself leading Talent at Riot Games. It’s a company culture unlike any I’ve experienced, and thrives on the idea that we’re a flat structure, where literally anyone is empowered to make awesome happen for our players. Entrepreneurship, passion, humility, and problem-solving rule the day. We throw around words like “meritocracy” and “transparency” constantly. We don’t have offices or parking spaces. And, thanks to Agile software development principles, we push hard to ensure that accountability on any significant piece of work is crystal clear.

The more I think about the purposes for a job title, the less I’m convinced that reasons 2-4 I listed above are important.  Especially at Riot. As I said, we have lots of mechanisms for making accountability clear here. Not only do we not care about rank or status, we actively try to deny that these things matter. We don’t have perks tied to title. Everyone has stock options. No one tells their subordinates at Riot what to do and expects it to be blindly followed (at least without a shouting match of epic proportions). Even the word “subordinate” makes my skin crawl.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not a fan of Zappo’s organizational experiment, and I’m not in favor of banishing all titles. Describing someone’s role in an organization is valuable. But I’m getting increasingly convinced that titles should only be descriptive of what a person does, full stop.  They should shift as responsibilities shift. Anything and everything related to rank and status should just go away. The word “Senior,” I’ve decided, is the fastest bullet-train to internal conflict.

I’ve changed my LinkedIn profile from “Vice President of Talent” to “Head of Talent.” Who cares whether I’m a Vice President, Managing Director, or Chief something? What I do is head the Talent craft at Riot Games. Anything Talent-related within Riot, send it my way and I’ll either help support you or find someone who can. Whether I’m “more senior” than the head of Art, Engineering, or Game Design is just a silly and unproductive conversation.

I don’t know if my current thinking will signal a change within and across Riot, but it’s something I’m discussing with our founders (or, more accurately, they came to me to discuss it). Certainly if I can save myself a bunch of unexpected and unpleasant title-related grumpiness down the road, I’m all for it.

What do you think? Am I missing something here?

-jms

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