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Separating Title, Responsibility, and Capability

A crucial part of being a people manager is making hiring decisions, and a overlooked part of that responsibility is to make a judgement on not only whether someone passes the hiring bar, but which bar they clear. That is, in order to hire someone onto a team, a hiring manager needs to figure out their expected level, title, areas of responsibility, and growth trajectory, usually only based on their resume and a handful of interviews and sell discussions. Of course, the manager has many more opportunities to course-correct once they become a senior employee, but that initial calibration can anchor a tenure.

It’s important, then, to try to separate out 3 overlapping and interrelated concepts: the job title, its areas of responsibility, and the person’s own capabilities. As I’ve branched out my own team’s hiring needs beyond software engineers, I’ve come across a much wider gamut of folks where these areas aren’t necessarily aligned. It’s worth digging a little into what each part is, and what happens when they get too out of whack.

Working backwards, then—

What you can do. Your set of capabilities can be defined as what you can be expected to accomplish with little fanfare. That is, it’s a comfortable set of tasks and responsibilities, with the boundaries defined from past experience and work. If there is room for stepping up into previously unforeseen territory—i.e., capability based on your potential and an extrapolation from your career arc—it’s likely intrinsically driven and incremental from current capabilities. A candidate or a colleague performing to their capabilities should be a simple baseline.

What You’re Expected to Do. Expectations vary. What you’re expected to do is typically defined by your manager, though there are of course also expectations set by teammates, subordinates, and probably yourself as well. My definition of a good manager is one who sets incrementally higher levels of expectations, both for themselves and their reports, whereby this continuous escalation becomes a treadmill for growth. Done right, slightly outsized expectations eventually transform into competencies.

What You Tell Others You Do. Put succinctly, this is your job title and description. It is, in theory, a designation which gets bestowed from a solid foundation of capabilities and heightened expectations, but a title’s visibility and prestige has corrupted it be a tool for recruitment and retention as well. Since folks can be overly incentivized to pursue titles, some have argued for their expulsion, though in practice titles are universal and jobs do not exist in a vacuum1.

In an ideal world, one aspect of leveling informs the next; we would agree on capabilities (based on past performance), use that to set expectations, and upon fulfillment of those expectations grant increasingly prestigious titles. In practice, the dynamics are much less easily defined: candidates negotiate for titles2, teams and companies set responsibilities well beyond an individual’s capabilities based on need or miscalibrated expectations, and people go through prolonged slumps where they accomplish much less than they’ve proven in the past.

Tragedy would be someone who is performing well within their capability, but for other reasons is unable to get the level of expectation and role consummate with their abilities.

Stress is likely for someone who lacks both the capability and the title for the job, but has those expectations set by their managers or because of business needs and feels like they have to work doubly as hard to step up for eventual recognition.

Annoyance is reserved for those who lead with their titles. Lacking the actual capabilities to perform at their roles, the expectations fostered upon them shrinks over time, until all that remains is a ceremonial figurehead of an organization.

That said, equilibrium is not the goal, even if the extremes of that misalignment creates these uncomfortable scenarios. Capabilities improve; expectations heighten; titles evolve. The point isn’t to break down what is commonly thought-of as a singular role into multiple dimensions and then lament at the lack of cohesion, but rather, to pinpoint where the difference between title and responsibility and ability lie and then work to close that gap.

  1. Case in point, while Square tried hard to keep its culture of no titles intact within the company, there were de-facto titles that folks used within the company anyway, and plenty of mid-level employees gave themselves slightly-inflated titles on their LinkedIns and resumes regardless.

  2. At least, the savvy ones negotiate for titles, knowing that compensation is often a direct function of leveling.

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