In my first post about job titles I demonstrated the benefits of not having titles in the workplace. In this post I’ll demonstrate how job titles create no shortage of problems. Pretty simple, yet powerful stuff.
My friend Arun (pr. Ah-roon) has had a number of titles at Zappos: CTO, former CTO, Gandhi, Downtown Project consultant, temporary COO, COO, etc. Wait, Gandhi? Yes, let me explain. Ever since Zappos moved to the heart of downtown Las Vegas there has been a tradition of posting large posters of people who have inexplicably chosen to leave the happiest company on earth. These pictures are hard to miss, covering windows that hover above the main Zappos HQ entrance. One day in 2013, I was walking into the office and was greeted by a large, gorgeous black and white printout of Gandhi. I stopped in my tracks. “We had Gandhi on the payroll? And we’re letting him walk out the door?!” I couldn’t think straight. I felt light headed and incredibly weak. Thankfully a serendipitous collision occurred with a disheveled man asking if I had any change to spare. I immediately sprung back to life and bolted for monkey row. Greeting me at my desk was Arun. It was then that I put the puzzle pieces together. The picture wasn’t Gandhi, it was Arun. Instead of relief, I began to realize that I was about to let the modern day equivalent of Gandhi walk away from Zappos. At that moment I felt a foreign substance streaming down my face from my eyes, something wet and uncomfortable. Turns out it was Arun spraying my face with water. He said I was standing in the same spot for over a couple minutes, unresponsive and staring into the ether. He grabbed a nearby spray bottle and performed impromptu shock treatment. I recovered from that moment with a great sense of urgency – get Arun back to Zappos ASAP.
I was giddy with excitement before one of our company all hands meetings in 2014. I would be welcoming Arun back to the Zappos family as temporary COO. His job was to help me run the show and find a permanent COO. My job was to make sure he found the only candidate for COO – Arun. For every candidate Arun brought in, I’d point out fatal flaws: doesn’t floss daily, threw a plastic bottle in the “compost” trash can, didn’t hold the door open for a person coming fifty feet from behind, never personally thanked the Bistro chef for the delicious lunch, etc. If you can’t get those details right, how can I trust you to deliver happiness on a daily basis as COO? I can’t and Arun started to catch on about two months ago that his search was futile. He was the man for the job. Immediately after our CTO (not to be confused with Arun, former CTO) announced his intention to leave the happiest place on earth, Arun sent out his announcement that he was back home for good, this time as COO.
Here’s where titles become a problem. The former CTO, former traitor, former temporary COO, former Downtown Project consultant, now permanent COO is in meetings and I’m confused by what “hat” he’s wearing at any given moment. The topic of Super Cloud comes up and he talks about it like it’s the first he’s ever heard of it, since he’s “new to the company as COO”. Then teal comes up and Arun is suddenly fluent in teal talk and says he’s been fully teal compliant since he was the CTO way back when. He argues that, in fact, he may as well now be the CTO because, well, we don’t have one now and he feels his heart never left that position, so why not? Then we discuss some touchy financial topics and he stresses how tough it’s been making the transition as a temporary COO, with too little visibility and influence over the financials as a temporary ops guy. Someone mentions some sticky issues with Downtown Project and Arun pulls out the stopwatch app on his phone, reminding us all that if he’s going to provide any guidance on this particular topic, he’s going to be “on the clock”. We’re in a board meeting with Amazon and Arun becomes Gandhi; refusing to eat, speak, or move a muscle in “peaceful protest against his oppressors”. It got so confusing that I finally had hats made up for Arun to put on so I could understand where he was coming from at any given time.
In order to save him some embarrassment of carrying around a growing collection of title hats, I got him a hat box to discreetly carry his new teal lids in.
(Yet another way I deliver happiness at Zappos. This will definitely be in the second edition of my book.)
Arun was changing hats faster than Freddy comes up with new teal puns. It was dizzying to be in meetings with the man with too many titles. Meanwhile, Fred would lean back in his chair, give a Cheshire grin and kick his feet up on the table to take it all in. The man with no title was chilling out while the man with many titles was breaking a serious sweat from swapping hats; desperately trying to remember who he is at any given point in a conversation. Every once in a while Fred would toss out a comment to get Arun working overtime, “Arun, it seems like you’re speaking as CTO and COO right now.” Arun would scramble and try to slam two hats on at the same time. I couldn’t take it anymore. I locked myself in a closet and typed up the now famous teal email. Hat swapping crisis averted.
Bottom line, job titles aren’t worth the hassle (or hats). Go teal & titleless or go home.