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Financial Times: The Risks and Rewards of Elon Musk’s Self-Coronation

22 Mar 2021
Whimsical c-suite job titles can help employees ward off burnout and build a rapport with outsiders, according to an AMJ paper.

Originally found at Financial Times, by Andrew Hill.

Last week, Elon Musk anointed himself “technoking” of Tesla, the electric car company where he holds the more conventional role of chief executive.

Like previous unorthodox Musk moves, the two-sentence declaration in a regulatory filing divided watchers into two camps: those who see the entrepreneur as a revolutionary, and those who think he is merely revolting.

The likelihood that this is another joke at the expense of the corporate and financial establishment seems high. The announcement has a cartoonish quality. In the same statement, Tesla said its chief financial officer would henceforth be known as “master of coin”, a title that comes straight from Game of Thrones (and is not a particularly auspicious choice, given the fictional Iron Throne’s patchy financial record).

I am no fan of title inflation, or the parallel trend for weird C-level inventions, from chief fun officer to vice-president of mindfulness, but Tesla’s clowning could also have a serious side.

Titles matter. Just ask the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose concerns about whether son Archie would become a prince were one bone of contention in their rift with the royal family. Plenty of ambitious people, from executives to journalists, haggle to add “chief” to their business card.

Give a team member the label “leader” and he or she will start behaving like a high-handed boss, while colleagues grovel like minions, well-known study shows. But as co-author Leigh Tost pointed out in a separate about power for the journal Research in Organizational Behavior, a “mere title” is unlikely to be enough to exert authority unless the holder also has control of resources, such as money, information, or decision-making opportunities. Self-styling, in other words, is nothing without substance.

Titles can send useful signals, even so. By calling his CFO “master of coin”, Musk has added more fuel to speculation about Tesla’s long-term interest in bitcoin, where the carmaker has already invested $1.5bn of its reserves. In a less meme-worthy, but arguably more significant announcement earlier this month, Tesla also named the president of its automotive division to a new, conventionally titled role as “president, heavy trucking”, underlining the group’s determination to bring its battery-powered “Semi” trucks to market.

Trying on a made-up title has benefits, too. The positive impact was notable when one regional chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a US charity that helps grant the wishes of seriously ill children, invited staff to adopt a fun title that reflected how they saw themselves in the organisation.

The chief executive dubbed herself “fairy godmother of wishes”, the CFO became the “king of cashola”, and so on. Employees said the exercise helped them ward off burnout and build a rapport with outsiders, according to a 2013 study for the Academy of Management Journal. The titles also broke down barriers between Academy colleagues, making them more comfortable about seeking support from each other.

Continue reading the original article at Financial Times.

Read the original research in Academy of Management Journal.

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