Don’t Be Deceived by Titles (or, What Star Wars Taught Me About Business Development)

Recently I was watching Star Wars with my daughter for the first time (original trilogy first, obviously. I am not a monster) and, as happens all too regularly, I was distracted from the movie by an important insight about business development.

Early on in the film, an overconfident Admiral Motti dismisses Darth Vader’s perspective on the strategic imperative of building the Death Star:

Darth Vader: Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

Admiral Motti: Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given clairvoyance enough to find the rebels’ hidden fort…

“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” interrupts Vader, while choking the life out of him.

Admiral Motti underestimated Darth Vader, and that’s understandable: he wasn’t an admiral in the Galactic Empire. He was merely the Emperor’s lackey. Vader lacked direct control over the important matters of battle station construction strategy or budget responsibility for planet-obliterating product development. In title alone, he was insignificant and easily ignored.

But just as that poor Admiral Motti nearly parted with his life for disregarding Darth Vader’s role within their organization, so too do we put our Business Development efforts at risk when we put too much stock in a contact’s job title.

Titles Can Be Deceiving

When thinking about doing partnership deals or selling to an organization, we often attempt to immediately build a relationship directly with the highest-ranking person we can find. And with good reason: more senior roles often command increased responsibility, decision-making abilities, and budget ownership, and he who controls the purse strings is exactly whose attention you want to have.

The challenge is that job titles aren’t always as revealing or important as we’d like. Soliciting the approval of a decision maker may be a necessary step for closing a deal, but there is not always a clear or direct path to finding your way in front of those folks.

One LinkedIn search will reveal an epidemic of title vagueness that has been fostered within Big Companies. While the startup world has had to deal with ridicule over overly-cute business cards promoting one’s status as a “Ninja”, “Guru,” or “Rockstar”, within Big Companies there are increasingly blurred lines of responsibility implied by titles.

For example, how many Directors of Marketing can Google possibly have?

Relying on title alone is a tricky game to play when trying to identify who holds the cards in deciding on what to do with your deal. While you’re always looking to find those individuals whose personal motivations align with the organization’s motivations, those people may not always be easily found at the top of the ladder.

Build Advocates for Influence and Insights

Advocates – those people who will champion your journey through the organization and can help usher your deal along – come in all shapes and sizes. There is tremendous value in developing relationships with those less senior, less-grandly-titled individuals who may not always get the attention they deserve: they may have a valuable amount of insight into how the organization thinks and influence over who can help you along the way.

A less tenured employee who nonetheless has several years of experience at a Big Company may have a large network of internal relationships and can help you get introduced throughout the organization. They can provide important insight into the organization’s interests and priorities, and help identify who will care about the value that you can create for the company.

A rising star with limited responsibility right now might have the ear of management, and that person can be the one who positively influences your deal with a whisper.

Focus on Relationships

When we aim to build relationships primarily based on job titles, we can easily distract ourselves from the hidden gems that are more visible dispersed throughout an organization. Building and nurturing genuine relationships takes time, but the insights that they garner can provide a clearer window into a company than any org chart.

Focus less on titles and focus more on a mutual exchange of value with everyone you meet within an organization. You never know who will one day rise up to rule the empire.

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