Chasing Titles

Sorrento-Gillis: “Why didn’t you ever run for office?”

Avasarala: “I like getting shit done. And I like to keep my head attached to my neck.”

— The Expanse, “The Seventh Man”

When I was newly in the workforce, I just wanted to make enough money to pay rent, eat, and buy music. The further I went, though, I saw that the power to make the decisions rested with managers and executives. These are the leaders, I thought. I want to be one of them.

For the next few years, as I transitioned into the world of web design and then to user experience, my goal was simple: I want the title. If I had the title, I could finally run things the way they should be run.

But no one would give me the title. I wasn’t “a manager,” not in the sense my bosses saw a manager. I was miffed, of course. I would show them. I fought harder, led projects, built enterprise solutions in greenfield spaces no one had ever designed in before.

The title never came. Sure, I was a “senior user experience architect” or a “design lead.” I was appreciated, listened to, looked to. But where was my Director or Manager title? I wasn’t going to be “there” until I had it. Authority flowed from title, right? When was I going to be recognized for my Authority? (Insert Cartman quote here.)

A year or two ago, I started moving away from the Title Chase. I did the thing I should have done at the beginning: I studied how the directors and managers I knew and worked for functioned. They didn’t function all that well. Managers that wanted to design and manage and ended up struggling to do both effectively. Directors too busy expanding their power to notice the miasma of low morale coming from their reports. And in both cases, the power and authority they were supposedly projecting with the leadership was minimal.

The real leaders in the organization weren’t the people with the manager or director titles. They were the senior and principal designers, the researchers, the project managers. These leaders were pushing the organization by building relationships, delivering effectively, and creating the spaces where great design actually happened. They mentored. They facilitated. They led.

And my brief time as a director reinforced that. To lead design in an organization, you have to do much more than just get the execs to kneel before your title. You have to think about how you make the organization better, your team better, yourself better — three jobs in one. Oh, and do it all in 168 hours a week.

I have no idea where this idea came from that our title means authority and leadership. Maybe it’s because they’re in the meetings where we think the decisions happen. (OK, that’s probably where it comes from. I’ve seen one too many C-suite dweller kill my Great Idea.) But just as generals need field marshals, directors and managers need people on the ground who can build, motivate, and drive teams.

I’ve shifted away from chasing titles. I chase projects and opportunities instead. I look for opportunities to grow, stretch, and build on what I have created. I’m not going to say no to being a director again, but I have no delusion that being a director means I’ve “arrived.” It merely means I have a lot more work in front of me and greater challenges to overcome.

The hard thing about this shift, though, is you can do all the “work” and never get the title. The title comes from an organization’s assessment of a person in view of their chain of command, and that view comes from culture, from supervisors, from perception. Demanding a title may get you branded as “brash” or “too big for their britches,” but not demanding a title while doing the work doesn’t guarantee you’ll be recognized for it.

Don’t think I’m saying being a manager or director isn’t worthwhile. Certainly, we need to see more women and people of color in those management seats. We should, however, consider what such a position offers us as well as what we can offer it. Do we want to be in the business of critical conversations with reports? Do we want to try to untangle management knots while trying to fight bad morale? Does that excite us… or does the blocking and tackling of design excite us more?

In The Expanse the complicated and conniving Chrisjen Avasarala uses her political power and connections to unravel a set of conspiracies that are putting humanity on the brink of annihilation. But she’s merely #3 at the UN, not the Secretary-General. Her quote at the beginning of this article explains her raison d’être: She wants to get shit done, not play the games politicians need to survive.

It’s become my motto, too. I like getting shit done. And I like to keep my head attached to my neck. To do that, I lead from wherever I am.

Don’t worry about title. Worry about getting shit done.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it.With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it.He likes nectarines.You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.