You Are Not Your Job Title

By Ron Thomas, Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group

According to Gallup research, 55 percent of people in the U.S. define themselves by their job, instead of considering work as simply what they do to earn a living.

When I read this stat, it was frightening. Jobs and titles are fleeting. Lose your job, lose your title; lose that job, lose your identity.

I applaud the 45 percent who have a strong sense of themselves.

“Look at how important I am”

One of the things that always caused me to cringe was the dinner party circuit where you are constantly asked, “What do you do?” Once that was asked, you got a litany of chest thumping, credentialing, and “I am more powerful than you.”

At one company where I worked, the first conference call on a project was started with everyone telling just how important they were. My eyes would roll around as I sat through what I considered a waste of time.

When I read the stat from Gallup, I recalled an article I read back in 2009 about a support group that was started as a result of the economy tanking. This support group was church-based in a wealthy community where a lot of high powered executives lived.

The priest in the church group said in an interview that the biggest obstacle these people faced in “career transition” was their loss of identity. “Without my job, I don’t know who I am” was what the priest said, and it pretty much summed up these people.

The confidence level of walking the corridors as “Mr. Big Shot,” and all that went with it, was too much to bear once it had been taken away. Now they had been reduced to mere mortals. The swagger was gone, their chest size reduced.

Their identity was tied up as Mr. Executive Vice President, Managing Director, or CEO. You choose the title, but no matter the title, the effect is the same. This is a huge problem in that if your job or career changes then you’ll likely need to adjust your self-image too. Who am I now? The emotional challenge is adjusting your personal identity and sense of self.

Understand your brand is not your title

With all this credentialing, you are branding yourself as that title, and your identity is tied up with your organization.

When I worked for Martha Stewart Living, I was so proud of the brand that my identity was tied up as being the Vice President of HR. I felt sometimes as I “credentialed” myself to people that I could feel the “microphone drop.” Everyone was in awe and asking what was it like, how was it working for Martha, and the list goes on.

But when I left, I went through the same sense of identity loss that others do. Now, I was just Ron Thomas, writer, budding author, consultant. Nothing more and nothing less.

That taught me a valuable lesson about identity.

We all want to be respected and honored for who we are, and one’s chosen career is a big part of that. We also want to feel that our work has meaning and positive impact. So it is vitally important to NEVER get wrapped in the cape of your title. That cape will, in the end, cause you more issues as you transverse the career juggernaut.

One of the common questions that is asked of kids is “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Normally that answer comes with the usual, policeman, fireman, nurse, doctor, etc. That starts an inevitable pattern of having us identify with a job.

Stay grounded and love the work

However, I have noticed that executives that were grounded were the people you knew simply as John or Marilyn. While recently visiting a client, I was given a tour by the Chief HR Officer. I always love these tours, not so much to see the landscape, but more to see the reaction of the executive’s work peers.

Do they look and then look away, or more importantly, do they engage as they would if they see an equal? Is the conversation effortless? Are they not intimidated by the title? Those are the things I look for. That discovery tells me a lot about their style of leadership.

I worked for a CEO at one point in my career that was not known as Ms. CEO. Instead, she was simply known as Sharon. She was just as much at ease sitting in the mail room, or chatting with a coordinator, as she was in her C-Suite.

Job Titles Don’t Matter For People Who Are Doing What They Enjoy

To her, a person’s title did not matter. She treated everyone as an equal. I’m sure that when she left, she had no problem getting over the title phobia.

We all go through various changes throughout our careers, some good, some bad, all in the hunt of trying to find what works. Some of us are lucky because we find our calling, and while some end up miserable, at every point we feel that we will find salvation.

It’s simple: Just enjoy the work

The grass always DOES seem greener on the other side. That means to you that, “I will be happy over there.”

My advice is to concentrate on the work that you enjoy. Your career goals should be guided by what you enjoy doing. If that opportunity appears to offer you that interesting work or project that you absolutely love, that is a better barometer then some flimsy title.

The title will not bring the sense of comfort that you seek — but the work will.

ron thomasRon Thomas is Managing Director, StrategyFocused HR-MENA, based in Dubai. He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf countries, also based in Dubai. A former CHRO who was based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Ron is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute [hci.org ] covering the MENA region.