I work with women executives in senior roles who are contemplating leaving their corporate positions. One of the most common fears I hear from those I coach is that they can’t imagine giving up their title. They feel strongly that their EVP, SVP, CEO, Partner or other title defines them, is hugely important and that others will judge them if they leave and no longer have that big title. It may well be the most difficult aspect of leaving corporate America for many people. When you have years of education behind your title, have worked hard to get there, and feel proud of reaching your level, it can feel unfathomable to lose your title. You may feel that your title defines you, but the truth is that you are so much more than your title.
But My Title Is My Life!
Having a big title certainly is a big deal and there is no reason why you shouldn’t be proud of it. But staying in a position that no longer gives you passion and joy because you don’t want to lose your title will keep you stuck for all the wrong reasons. When I hear someone is hesitant to leave their corporate role because they can’t give up their title, even when they really, really want to do something else, I remind them that they have only one life, so choose passion over status. Keeping a job for the sake of what others think at the cost of a lackluster life is just not worth any status. Recently, I was discussing my work with a friend who recounted a conversation with her friend who is a hotshot NYC attorney who has plenty of money in the bank. Her lawyer friend is also a talented baker, loves to bake and would absolutely love to open up her own bakery. But, she just won’t leave her position because, “What would people think? I’m giving up being a successful attorney to be a baker? My mom would think I’m crazy!” And so she remains in her position—not for the money—just for the title.
Titles are one way in which we define who we are—they provide self-definition and often self-esteem. Yes, giving up a big title can seem scary if that is how you and others in your life have always defined you. Letting go of your title that you have had for years may make you feel like you are adrift without a sense of who you are. Having a loss of self-definition is common when people retire. Deciding to leave the corporate workplace of your own choice well before your expected retirement age is no different. If you aren’t your title, who are you? Why do we define ourselves by our job title?
American Work Ethic
I am told, though I don’t have much direct experience outside the US, that Americans are particularly hung-up on their titles. When we get introduced to someone we invariably ask, “What do you do?” We don’t start by getting to know the person for all they are in the world and what they care about: mother, daughter, loving companion, caretaker, animal advocate, nature lover, etc. Our culture is defined by the American work ethic. Do good work and you will be rewarded both monetarily and emotionally we are told. However, you can be an excellent worker and contributor to society whatever your title. No title is actually better than another. What is better is doing work that you love to do, regardless of the title.
Labeling and Categorizing
Categorizing ourselves is something that we have a natural human tendency to do. And that isn’t all bad. To make sense of the world, especially when we encounter something new, it helps to categorize and make connections to what you already know. When someone tells you they are a CEO of a rocket science company, even if you have no clue what their rocket science does, you do understand the title CEO and can attach to it that they are a leader, run a company and probably have some interesting tales. We use titles in order to describe what we do—as shorthand—to help others understand quickly. But if that label is the only route to your own self-worth, then when you no longer have that title, you may feel “less than”.
The good news is that there is a culture change happening. More and more people are re-designing what they do in the world and along with it they are creating a new self-definition of who they are. In most cases they still have titles, or many titles as when they are creating hyphenates, like blogger-designer-visionary. Yet in some cases they are simply embracing a description of who they are without assigning a culture-defined value to their level of achievement. They are being and doing what they want to do in the world because they are passionate about it and have natural talents in that area. So, if you are a lawyer who is at heart a baker, go for it! Embrace your natural talents and do the work in the world that you are drawn to regardless of the title. Ultimately, you will be a happier, more fulfilled and won’t miss your title.
Are you unsure whether you should stay in your current role (and title) or leave? Take The Corporate Jump Readiness Quiz™ to see if the time is right to find your work passion somewhere else.