I won’t lie, I jockey for job title all the time. Not that I think job titles are important, but I know they are important to some people and they become useful leverage in conversations.
That said, your job title means nothing if you do not have authority or influence.
Some job titles come with authority, but none come with influence. Influence is entirely up to you, and how much authority you really have can often be up to you as well.
Let’s talk about the easy one first. Authority is often conveyed by your job duties more than your actual title. If you are put in charge of a team of people and told you control their work assignments and everything about their jobs, you have authority over them. If the team is self motivated, this authority may be unnecessary and it really will be the most minor part of your career. Conveyed authority is often the least important. Sorry.
Then there is assumed authority and perceived authority. These go hand-in-hand. I learned about assumed authority when I was the most senior consultant on a project, so I became the de facto lead. Without anyone to tell me I couldn’t, I started making some serious changes to the customer’s application architecture. Changes that if they knew what I was doing and how extensive they were they would never have agreed to. However, the other developers turned to me for leadership so I was in a position to make the call. Just removing extraneous calls and thousands of lines of code improved performance by 10%. Further testing and streamlining eventually saw a 25% overall increase in performance. Surprise! Increasing performance also decreased defect reports as the system malfunctioned less when it wasn’t constantly thrashing the server. When the customer found out we improved performance they didn’t ask what we did, they were just happy we did it. Since I made the call I got the credit and I continued on officially as a development lead on my next assignment.
Now, if you paid attention to that story you’ll also spot that I made a decision that carried a great deal of risk. I shouldered that risk and had no one else who I could honestly blame it on. I accepted that as I was certain we could improve the system. If the system didn’t show some improvement then I would have had a hard time justifying the time we billed, though I think there was also a good argument for ease of maintainability as well. Still, the whole thing could have blown up in my face. I took a risk, it paid off, I was rewarded. This is actually a normal series of events.
However, I did not wait around to ask permission to lead the team. We were a boat without a captain, so I offered to steer the ship. No one said no so I did it. Opportunities often don’t come with permission. This can be a Catch-22, but in order to prove you are ready for more responsibility you sometimes have to take more responsibility. In turn, as you are seen as a leader and/or an expert, you are someone who is perceived as credible to make those decisions. Thus, if I had decided to make further changes, there were Project Managers, Directors, and Vice Presidents at the customer site who would have accepted my decision without needing their permission.
My job title? Actually the same as three other team members and only one level higher than six others. Also, not technically a supervisory role from a title perspective.
Then there is influence. People often mistake a job title for conveying influence. It never does. Influence is more nebulous, but the way I think of it is more relational. People who like you and respect you are more easily influenced. Sometimes to maintain those relationships you have to allow them to influence you. Using your influence instead of authority may be the best way or only way to handle people who don’t like you and don’t fit into your reporting structure. Influence is the only way to handle your direct supervisor.
I can give you the dictionary definition of influence if you really need it, but what you really need to understand is that authority and influence are two different tools in your toolbox. Influence is always available to you and your own charisma, credibility, and domain knowledge help you build it. Also, it is worth nothing that you need both. If you have a position of high authority but you personally have little influence you will find that many of your decisions and initiatives will not be effective.
Most importantly, remember that your job title means little overall. I know people who are “Vice Presidents” that have no direct reports. I know “Senior Developers” leading multi-million dollar projects. Over the long term, guess which of those two will ultimately be the bigger professional success?