Strategies & Tactics

Title Track: Are You Really a CEO?

March 4, 2019

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Titles are subjective. The ones we earn as employees or give ourselves as business owners can range from serious to amusing.

For instance, if you work in a PR agency, your title is likely tied to your income. That’s a serious matter for anyone who wants the recognition and pay they think they deserve. The difference between an account executive and an account supervisor is thousands of dollars per year. Each new title brings a higher salary range.

On the other hand, business cards with fanciful titles like “director of first impressions” and “chief people officer” can be comical to read.

As an independent businessperson, one of the first freedoms you get to exercise is what to call yourself. Some of the more common titles that PR independents like to use include “founder,” “owner,” “consultant” and “principal.” When I started my practice, I chose “principal,” but have since used “consultant,” “owner” and “founder,” depending on the situation.

Two titles I have chosen not to use, but many other independents do, are “president” and “chief executive officer” or CEO. I have studied the issue of these titles and talked to quite a few independents who hold opposing views on whether solo practitioners should use them. I have found some strong opinions on this question, but also common ground.

Reasons to use the CEO title

The major concern many independents have about taking “CEO” as their job title is that it’s the same one used by heads of multibillion-dollar companies. When you work from home and call yourself a CEO, people might think you’re trying to be something you’re not. So, before you decide to promote yourself to the role of CEO, consider these rules of thumb:

• Hire people first.

Once you start to grow your business and add staff, you become a manager of an actual organization and can justify calling yourself “chief.” For credibility purposes, most people I’ve talked to agreed that you’d probably be best to grow your staff to 10 or more before having those new business cards printed.

• Wait until you have significant revenue.

In the current economy, small groups of people can do big things. A tech firm with a small staff but the right platform, for example, can create revenue that rivals that of firms with hundreds of employees. For this reason, the number of people on staff may not always be the best indicator of how to position yourself by title.

You may find the need to be known as a CEO in order to join the company of those you most need to know to grow your business. With that in mind, look at your bottom line. Some independents believe it’s perfectly acceptable to call yourself a CEO if your firm generates annual revenue starting in the seven figures.

It’s difficult to know how many independents claim revenue in the seven figures each year, but such numbers are possible. If you have certain sources of passive income or high-end consulting arrangements, or you’ve created a tech platform to aid your work and that of others, then the title of CEO could be warranted.

What titles have you given yourself, and why? We’d love to know. Tweet us @PRSAtactics and @OBrienPR.

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O'Brien, APR, owns O'Brien Communications, an independent coprorate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the "Shaping Opinion" podcast. Email: timbrien@timobrienpr.com. Twitter: @OBrienPR.

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