Don't be a Title Chaser

Last week I began to answer the question of ‘Where to Next?’. A question very much about next steps and how designers can stay relevant in an industry that is ever-evolving, and still continue growing their skills and capacity to learn.

This post—Don't Be a Title Chaser—is the next in the series, looking at this big question and the many ways it can be answered.

I receive this question (or permutations of it), from many Designers and Strategists who have worked in the industry for a few years and are looking for the next steps of growth in their careers.

The common misconception is that you will graduate and enter the industry in a  role with the word ‘junior’ attached to it. It is then assumed you will move into a role that includes the word ‘mid-weight’ followed by a role that will include words like ‘senior’, ‘head of’ or similar.

Eventually the myth continues to lead you towards a ladder with roles with the words ‘director’ attached to them. Creative Director and Strategy Director being the most popular, top-of-the-ladder titles.

I understand that both Designers and Strategists have to fight to keep up with the changing landscape that our industry exists in. The world is changing at such a pace that these roles, critical to the communications endeavour must change and evolve with it.

But the misconceptions of following a career littered with titles of seniority that mimic a military unit rather than a creative, innovative design-lead business are damaging and I would suggest you take a different path.

A path that isn’t so linear.

Here’s a story.

A few years ago we were interviewing for a Junior Designer role at Tank and we had a few people shortlisted for interviews.

We only ever interview 2 or 3 people, as the recruitment process is time consuming and takes us away from our day-to-day work. We also spend ample time short-listing so the 2-3 people we do interview have gone through a form of due diligence. 

Saying that, it’s so important to us to find the right person for the very simple reasons of:

1. We have to work with them every day, and
2. They have to do a good job in the role we hire them in

On this one occasion I was interviewing a young guy (let’s just call him Jack for the sake of this story) for the position we needed filled. I printed his CV and welcomed him in. I showed Jack around the building quickly and we walked upstairs to the boardroom.

Let’s pause here.

I have this thing about where I sit when I’m in meetings. Sitting opposite someone, across a table is very formal. It’s like dinner for two. Like playing tennis with conversation instead of tennis balls. I usually try to avoid this type of arrangement unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Sitting on either side of the corner of a table is far more casual and comfortable; imagine a Mediterranean seaside, summer, some friends, cold drinks.

Much more relaxed.

It puts both parties at ease and amounts to a far more friendly conversation. Drinks optional.

I try hard in these settings to ensure that the person being interviewed doesn’t feel nervous, feels comfortable and confident to lead the conversation. Seating position and the ‘design of the meeting’ is a critical factor.

End of pause.

I sat down on one side of the table, near the corner and waved towards the other chair for Jack to sit in. Hoping it would calm his nervousness and allow him to feel comfortable knowing we were just going to have an informal chat.

Jack sat right next to me.

He placed his wallet and mobile phone on the table in front of me (he had a Platinum Amex) with a thud. Turned his mobile phone to face screen up showing a list of text messages and of course, the time. He spread out his very expensive (and completely unnecessary) box-style folio and began to turn the pages slowly whilst he proceeded to tell me:

  • He was looking to work in a “high profile design studio” now that he graduated with honours from the “very prestigious” Bachelor of Design at a local University.
  • He told me that he was aware that my business had “little to no profile in the industry” and asked me what my plans were to rectify that.
  • He was aware that, due to his high grades at University and industry connections he would “secure a job any day now”.
  • He wanted to know what the job title would be if he was hired, because, naturally “Junior Designer” really didn’t fit due to the level of skill he brought to the role.

The interview didn’t last very long. 

After all, it wasn’t an interview. Jack spoke, I listened.

Towards the end of the fifteen minutes we had together, I asked Jack why he accepted to be interviewed for this position when all evidence showed we didn’t meet his criteria.

I don’t really remember his answer.

There have been many versions of ‘Jack’ that have crossed my path in the last 25 years.

All have one thing in common.

They’re chasing the job title. They’re seeking status at the mercy of what’s in front of them.

I admire self-confidence in applicants. I think that we all have to strive to be comfortable within ourselves to be comfortable and confident, in the presence of others. But sometimes self-confidence can easily turn to arrogance.

There are some people who chase glory. They seek to see their name in lights and seek only to secure a position (of note) in the ‘dream agency’ or an agency that to them represents a higher calibre of work. These interviewees usually make for the shortest interviews. 

There are others that feel they’ve failed if they haven’t worked in a business that has some industry profile — an association accreditation or mention, an award or something similar to show that they have kudos.

I admit to have fallen into this trap when I was a few years into my own career, but what I’ve learned through that time is that the people you work with, the reasons you work together and what you choose to achieve together is much more important than awards, industry kudos, association accreditation and other shiny objects.

The people who share your day-to-day are the ones who will support you when you need it, they’re the ones who will put their hands up to do the things they find extremely difficult in an effort for you to succeed; the people who will sacrifice both time and effort to do the best possible job for you and your projects are the ones who count.

Don’t be a Title Chaser.

Some of the most successful and inspiring people I’ve worked with in my career have embraced an ambiguity about their roles that is to be commended. They’ve focussed on the skills of their team, the work and the culture above all else.

Some of the smartest, most intelligent people I’ve had the privilege to work with in the last 25 years didn’t pay much attention, if any, to the job title they held. They allowed a common purpose to lead them in decision-making and embraced the fact that they had strengths and weaknesses, and so did everyone else that worked with them.

To continue to find your answer to What’s Next – remove the notion that your version of ‘next’ will include a more senior position with a label attached to it.

Career progression isn’t a ladder we climb. Ladders assume we leave one step behind to climb up to the next. Career progression in a world that embraces innovation, design and creativity is a broad, flat arrangement of stepping stones that aren’t necessarily laid out for us in a straight line; sometimes we have to double-back or step sideways to move forward.

And sometimes when we double-back or step sideways, we may realise that we’ve found something quite nourishing and fulfilling.

In 2013, at Tank, I removed the words Junior, Mid-weight and Senior from all job titles in our business. I also removed my own title of Executive Creative Director to avoid the hierarchy that this title assumed. We now have a flatter structure where we strive for our team to be as autonomous as possible, where most people work across disciplines as well as embrace their strengths and weaknesses. 

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