Beyond the pecking order

Headshot of Angus Kneale
Angus Kneale, founder and creative, Preymaker

Let’s banish bureaucratic, corporate and patronizing labels.

At the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit this past December, Elon Musk ruffled the feathers of corporate big wigs by declaring their prestigious titles were made up and meaningless. 

“CEO is a made-up title. CFO is a made-up title,” he said with a grin. “They don’t mean anything.” He then announced that he legally filed with the SEC as Techno King. “I did that as kind of a joke because these titles don’t mean a lot,” he said. “And all these other titles are basically just made up.”

Joking aside, Musk is right. Today, there really is no need for a made-up caste system with imperious acronyms like EVP, SVP, COO, CIO, CDO and so on, especially in our industry. 

As we emerge from one of the most difficult times in recent history and face unprecedented environmental and social challenges, the last thing a creative industry like ours needs is to reinforce an outdated pecking order. What we do need is a proactive, self-effacing mind-set based not on inflated appearances but on ego-less collaboration, fresh thinking and groundbreaking creativity.

I would like to propose that, as an industry, we banish bureaucratic, corporate and patronizing labels.

“Senior Executive Vice-President.” What does the title actually mean in our business? 

We need titles that clearly describe what we do, such as writer, artist, producer or engineer. I personally really like creative and the currently popular maker (has a nice ring to it, don't you think?). 

Protecting your turf with a lofty title does not lend itself to new ideas, innovation or creativity. Experience is important, but hierarchy can happen organically. Everyone understands their strengths and respects others’ backgrounds. People respect experience and seniority naturally. 

As multiple industries experience immense challenges, companies need to upend the heavyweight at the top of the ticket and stir empowerment from the bottom up. Flatten the playing field and watch as some of the best ideas come from people who don’t have fancy titles. We need to create spaces where good ideas are encouraged from every direction. 

Employees will be able to use this new open work environment for higher productivity. Flat organizations enable rich, diverse conversation and cross-pollination. Everyone feels like they have a voice and won’t be afraid to share their point of view. 

Moving beyond rigid, meaningless titles has the potential to: 

  1. Create a culture based on intelligence, merit and productivity.
  2. Help people focus on functional areas, not hierarchical positions. 
  3. Increase transparency. 
  4. Empower fresh ideas.
  5. Increase agility and innovation.

There are a few precedents. MassMutal, Zappos and CloudFlare, among others, have eliminated bureaucratic titles in favor of titles that reflect what employees actually do and what they contribute to their companies. Lately, we are noticing a lot of startups opening without titles. 

Our company launched in 2020 without an acronym among us. We have no desire to align with the status quo. This ethos aligns with what we are doing. Some of our colleagues are now starting to follow our lead.

It’s not easy to break the mold. Companies are pressured to create a pecking order. It’s still the common language of workplace culture. But we can start the disruption by dropping “executive” and “officer.” 

Be brave — give junior hires the same titles as top creatives, set them free and watch. They will be empowered and have a voice. Previously they would have had to wait a decade to be heard. We can’t afford to wait another year — let alone a decade.

Angus Kneale is founder and creative at Preymaker.

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