Title ≠ Authority
Originally published on LinkedIn.
Back in June 2021, I accomplished my career-long goal of becoming a marketing director. I always wanted to either be an agency's creative director or a brand's marketing director, and suddenly, there I was. Mission accomplished. Not a middle manager, not an account executive, not a PM or supervisor or coordinator, not even an actor/model, but a full-fledged marketing director. Head of the brand. Marketer in chief. As an added bonus, the brand in question was rapidly growing, massively successful, and sold a product I already loved and believed in: Legend Boats.
"Finally!," I thought. "Now I'll be able to call the shots and do things my way. The world will see my brilliance now!"
Anyone who has ever been an employee knows this feeling and thought process: I've worked hard to become great at what I do. If only I was in charge, then I could make a difference. I just need the authority to do it.
Here's what I've learned in 18 months: Titles do not grant moral authority. I did not magically become an effective leader because I had a title now. That's not how it works. You may officially have authority, but you still need to win people over to your way of thinking if you're going to get anything done. Great marketing requires willing co-conspirators. You can't bully them into it.
And everything I did to win people to my way of thinking were things that didn't require a title to do. It included things like... talking. And listening. And reflecting. And trying to approach every situation with integrity, so that even when we were on opposing sides, the other person knew I respected them and wasn't going to B.S. them. That in fact, we were on the same side, simply looking at things differently.
In other words, I tried to be diplomatic. Diplomacy, as it turns out, does not require a title. It's just a smart and courteous way of doing business.
Reflecting back on my own career, what I've finally noticed is that there's very little correlation between how high up a person is in an organization and how effective that person is. Looking back I can see this has been true everywhere I've worked. I just didn't see it until now. Massive change comes from everywhere. It has nothing to do with title. I've worked for many inspiring leaders who motivated the team to great heights. I've seen so-called "entry-level" people make incredibly deep impacts on their companies and customers.
I've also had managers in the past who you could be forgiven for not noticing whether they showed up for a week or five, and colleagues who I couldn't understand how they got past the phone screening interview. I think we all have.
Here's what I wish someone had told me: You do not need permission to lead.
Let me say that again: You do not need permission to lead.
Let me put it another way: Your boss already wants you to lead. They have enough on their plate.
Titles are granted. Respect is earned. Only one of those is necessary for authority and leadership.
"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a marketer." – Henry Hill
Why am I writing this today? Transparently, I'm writing this because I've made a career decision that I feel bears some explanation.
Last week, I asked for a demotion.
I asked to no longer be Legend Boats' marketing director.
It was terrifying. I didn't know what I was going to do differently. But I realized that being a director took me away from the things I love and excel at: the actual marketing process itself. I was spending 60+ hours a week just on management, and often 0 hours on anything that resembled marketing.
A highly skilled manager could probably do that portion of the job in half the time. Maybe a third of the time. I was spending all that time just trying to not suck at it.
Part of that is because I never actually wanted to be a manager, per say. I just wanted to be a more effective marketer, and I thought I needed permission to do so. I thought it took a title.
I was wrong. The title just gave me a bunch of distracting responsibilities. I was spending all my energies trying to not suck as a manager instead of spending it trying to be a stellar marketer.
"I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread." – Bilbo Baggins, after filling out his umpteenth Zoho report.
So I'm taking a step back, and I think it's going to be for a good long time. I don't imagine I'll be trying my hand at management again any time soon. In fact, I intend not to.
Instead, I want to focus on what I love and do best, which is marketing products to people whose lives will be improved by them. Selling things I believe in. Getting absurdly nostalgic and sappy about, well, consumerism.
As easy as it is to become cynical about capitalism and marketing and consumerism and all the rest... our lives really are better than they ever were before. I truly believe this.
Our lives are so good that we now complain about "delays" in traveling around the world in a single day. "Slow" phones that are more powerful than the top-of-the-line desktop PCs from a decade ago, and frankly faster than most modern laptops. We worry more about malnutrition than hunger because calories have largely become abundant and cheap, albeit unevenly distributed.
A couple of my children have illnesses that require frequent trips to the children's hospital. The treatment is so good that instead of worrying about their quality of life or potentially needing to say goodbye to a child at a young age, we're just annoyed by all the travel. That's all it amounts to. This bizarre capitalist-socialist mish-mash economic system we have, for all of its problems and idiosyncrasies, also allows my kids to lead perfectly normal lives with normal expectations for lifespan and quality of life.
How can I find fault in that?
I'm not saying there aren't still atrocities or tremendous suffering. But I am saying that on the whole... I think there's less suffering than there used to be. Modern medicine alone should prove that much.
And I don't think we'd have this beautiful messy system without marketing.
Marketing is more than just getting people to buy stuff they don't need. It's also more than simply informing people about stuff they might not know about.
"Marketing is about giving meaning to the mundane." – Me, just now.
When Legend Boats talks about "Creating Memories", that's not just a slogan to sell boats. It's a fundamental truth about why people buy boats in the first place: to create memories. Every boater is driven by memories of their own childhoods, and a desire to pass that on to others. The fact that our company understands this at its core is one of the main reasons I work here. We understand the mission.
"Our Mission is to Create Memories." – The entirety of the Legend Boats Mission Statement.
Long ago, John Russell, managing director of Harley-Davidson Europe, asked a group of employees what they thought Harley sold. Some said transportation, a means to go from point A to B. Others said thrill, excitement, speed.
Russell corrected them all:
"Harley-Davidson sells the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in leather, ride into a small town, and have people fear him."
When I worked at Petryna Advertising, I wrote what I still consider to be the best 3 words I've ever strung together. It was for our client IVEY Group, who offer international recruiting services:
"Talent is Global."
That's the tagline we sold them. It's one of most powerful things I've ever written. It changed how I thought about them. In 3 little words, it captures what they sell (a global talent pool) as well as why you should be buying: You don't need to limit your talent search to your own backyard. It's a global economy. Talent can come from anywhere. Talent... is global.
Recap: Legend wants you to create memories. Harley wants people to fear you. IVEY wants you to tap into a global talent pool. Just 3 examples of marketing giving meaning to the mundane.
Other famous examples:
Nike: "Just do it."
Apple: "Think Different."
The Economist: "'I never read The Economist.' - Management Trainer, 42"
VW: "Think Small."
Rolling Stone: "Perception. Reality."
These famous ads and taglines have more in common than being clever or highly remembered. They each make a point that made you rethink how you view their product.
It's not a pair of shoes. It's the end of excuses.
It's not a computer. It's a different way to think and work.
It's not a magazine. It's the key to career growth.
It's not a car. It's a rejection of gas guzzling waste, opulence, and garishness.
It's not for losers and dropouts. It's for successful people who still have an edge.
Good marketing communicates. Great marketing connects, transforms, reveals, engages, and leaves you with a fire under your ass to do something.
That's my passion and I intend to live or die doing it.
Marc Duhamel, Co-CEO of Legend Boats, gave me a bit of advice when I first took on the director role. I'm not sure if he was warning me, or if perhaps he could see something in me that I didn't, or if he simply tells every manager the same thing. I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this:
Everyone thinks they want to be a manager, when what they really want is to be effective. They want responsibility and money and status. But very few people actually look forward to the management part of managing: hiring, firing, scheduling, delegating, and discipline.
Marc said something else to me, and hardly a day has gone by that I haven't mulled it over:
Management is just a function. It has nothing to do with your value to the company.
I think most of think the opposite. Management = value. The more management you are entrusted with, the more valuable you are. But that's not how Legend works, and I find that to be profound. Management isn't a privilege at Legend Boats, it's a responsibility. And you may discover it's a responsibility you didn't really want in the first place.
When I was at #Inbound23, I heard HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah speak about why he doesn't have any direct reports, even though he's the co-founder and CTO. It blew me away. I won't try to quote him, but in essence he said he decided early on to focus on the things he was passionate about – technology – and spend zero time on the things he wasn't – management.
Hubspot's technology division has been led by a man without any direct reports from the very beginning. He may have the title, but he doesn't have the responsibility. People choose to follow him. And he's one incredibly effective leader.
His talk may have influenced my thinking about why I was in management at all.
All of which brings me back to my original point. You do NOT need a title to lead. In fact, in my case, I found the title to be a distraction to leadership. It caused me to get bogged down in things I'm not especially good at. I'm more of an absent-minded professor than a hard-nosed taskmaster. I prefer to get lost in a project over jumping in and out of many.
For some, having a lot on the go gives them energy and drive.
For me, I thrive when I can zone into a single project, a single purpose, and emerge at the end with a solution. That's not always realistic, but as a manager I found it to be a complete impossibility.
So, here's my new mantra:
Focus on what you're great at. It's easy to be confident when you're genuinely skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced in the topic. People follow confidence, but they can smell indecision.
F--- titles. You'll waste a lot of time chasing them, and hold yourself back from many opportunities due to being intimidated by someone else's title. They don't mean anything. The most effective people I've met ignore them entirely and act like they own the place. (Often, they end up owning the place.)
Stop waiting for permission. You do not need permission to lead. Just go. Trust that others will follow if it's a good destination. And be prepared to course correct if it's not.
Moral authority comes from knowledge, experience, and self-confidence. The title means nothing. Don't fall for the trap. #TheCakeIsALie. If you truly want to manage, awesome. All the power to you. We need great managers, so I hope there's an abundance of people out there who love to hire, fire, schedule, delegate, and dole out discipline. But it's possible you just want permission to lead. You don't need a title for that. And you don't need the responsibility that come with it.
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