Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) October 2009

"I Still Don't Understand What You Do"

Neil Seeman

"I still don't understand what you do for a living." Many of us get hit with this covertly hostile remark - typically during conference chitchat and social gatherings. It is both discomfiting and amusing. Those who make it are often smug members of the "professional identity class."
Beware this professional class. Despite being well compensated, they tend to be less socially useful than people who earn a lot less. The very solidity of their traditionalism seems to thwart innovation.

Individuals whose identity is bound up in their professional title suffer what psychiatrists call narcissistic wounds, or emotional body blows, when their industry blows up. You've seen this up close if you know any newly unemployed investment bankers, professors, lawyers and realtors. The current recession is the first to hit the current crop of early-boomer professionals: those well-advanced in career, financial wealth and accustomed to status.

Public relations experts advise newly unemployed professionals to "re-invent" themselves; to recast their résumés in "outcomes-oriented" language; to craft a "personal mission statement". It's as if management speak - "e.g. I am results-driven, quality-focused" - can change your genotype. But this isn't always true. Just because every organization today says it is "quality-focused," not all are. Fashionable jargon does not make you authentic.

The End of Old-School Titles

Online conversations on the Web - three billion minutes are spent on social networks every day - reveal that the professional identity class is losing its allure. On Linkedin, the professional social networking site, job-seeking healthcare workers describe themselves no longer by stale professional titles, but in imaginative alliterations - as in, "I dissect diabetes one day at a time".

Modern healthcare workers are looking for employment in organizations that share their passion and humanity, not HR managers seeking "results-driven" "project managers" or "IT specialists". If you want to recruit and retain A-class talent, then look for those A-class people who have the courage to define themselves outside the parochial career box.

Tyler Cowen, who teaches economics at George Mason University, celebrates what he calls the new world order, where we can all create our own liberties in the age of the Internet. We can define our own economy; our own job titles; our own sense of wealth. No longer do we need to buy into old-world hierarchies of professions, since we live in global communities where e-friends - and increasingly in healthcare, e-patients - help us define what matters to us. All of which means it's the professional identity class who should be explaining to the rest of us why they do what they do. It's like the New Yorker cartoon where a man tries to impress a woman by telling her he's in banking; she replies, "Oh, is there money in that?"

Titles like "partner" - even if half the company is made up of such partners - are said to matter in organizations because we believe in accountability. Large bureaucracies are typically hierarchical, which is supposed to make the accountability bread-crumb trail easier to follow in case something goes awry. But this, we know, is not the real reason for title elevation.

Titles make us feel special, but it is an ephemeral glow. Many people like fancy titles because they're looking to quit the organization, so they need the promotion to make them look more attractive to their next employer. One option is to get rid of titles, or to allow people to choose them, and to define for themselves how they do what they do. This isn't corporate anarchy; it's Google-generation management.

If you decide to get rid of titles, you will suddenly see who truly cares about your organization and its mission. The status-seekers will flee. As an experiment, at your next business meeting, tell people to introduce themselves sans title. Try asking them to share their name and their favorite book or ice cream. The current fashion of around-the-room self-introductions at planning sessions is as dull as it is obstructive to generating new ideas.

I am not immune to the conceits of status. At various times I have described myself as a lawyer or editor or manager or the like. Sometimes (as in my current role) there are legal or institutional reasons for adopting this vernacular. But the vernacular is less important than inculcating trust - in one's organization and in oneself. To paraphrase Bill Clinton's campaign strategist James Carville, "it's about authenticity, stupid."

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is a writer, and Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College at the University of Toronto.

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