The Money or the Title

Saturday, September 10, 2022 by Louie Bacaj

When I was younger and just hitting the senior engineer rank of my career, I landed an offer at one of the big banks.

When we got to the negotiation phase of the offer, I made clear that I wanted the VP title and rank at the bank.

Don't worry; it's not as crazy as it sounds; at the big banks, almost everyone is a VP. Being a VP at a bank is not like a VP in Big Tech, at a Startup, or at any nonbanking company.

At the banks, the titles and ranks usually look something like this:


Associate Vice President (AVP)

Vice President (VP)

And then, after those titles, there are usually the Associate Directors, Directors, and Managing Directors. The Managing Directors at the banks (MDs) usually have similar responsibilities to traditional VPs everywhere else.

Back at the negotiating table, I reasoned that since nearly everyone at the banks is a VP, I wanted to be a VP too. As we negotiated, I learned the MD of the group was worried about the optics of me getting a VP title. He worried it would mess up the team dynamics a little bit. They had folks that had ten years of experience with that title in that team. and I only had around 5.

It was a fierce negotiation, but I could tell they really wanted to hire me, so I stood firm.

What happened next shocked me, and it is the lesson of this entire story.

The MD came back with two offers; one had the VP title and, at the time, paid $125k, which was respectable but not a huge raise for me at that point in my career. And the other offer had an AVP title that paid significantly more, $160k.

You see, these titles have very large bands at these big companies. And since the salary range is so wide, it has a ton of overlap between titles. Because titles are visible and salaries are seldom transparent, especially at the banks, they were banking (pun intended) on paying me higher than some folks on the team while still keeping the team optics “good.”

So now, put yourself in my shoes; what would you do with my years of experience at the time? Take the title or take the money?

While you think about that, I am going to tell you that I recently advised someone to take the money. It is what I advise people all of the time now. All other things being equal except the title; I say take the money every single time.

As my career progressed, I saw firsthand why the money is so important.

A few things happen when your salary goes up significantly; every other raise will be based on where you currently are. Usually, everyone gets a raise based on this, even when they switch jobs too. In fact, in almost all companies, raises and promotions are standard and routine things they do all the time. For example, a raise will usually be in some percentage range. Say 15%, which is a pretty good raise. But 15% of $125k amounts to 18.7k, and 15% of 160k is 24k. Louie, the VP, with a raise, would be making $143k.7k. While Louie, the AVP, would be banking $184k after his first raise.

But this isn't even the main reason why the money is important; this is a sideshow to the real show.

When you get paid more, your boss knows you are paid more, and their boss knows you are paid more. And with more money comes more responsibility and higher expectations. Even if no one tells you they expect more from you, it is exactly what happens consciously and subconsciously in the minds of the people above you.

Yes, you have a target on your back by being paid more money than your peers. But, depending on your ambitions, that target can be a bad thing or the best thing that's ever happened to you.

Leadership expects more from you, but they also hand you more critical work than your peers. Everyone that knows you make a lot will want you to work on and deliver important things to earn that money. And if you do a great job with those essential things, that is a sure path to even more promotions and money. Turns out money is a pretty good way for careers to compound faster.

People at most companies are usually promoted based on their impact, and you can't make an impact if you don't work on important things. You can't sit on your laurels or hide when you are getting paid big bucks; if you are ambitious, that's exactly what you want. You don't get to hide.

Then if you do a good job on those important projects, well, that makes promoting and paying you more even easier. Most senior leaders don’t care about titles as much as people think; they are meaningless in a lot of places. But everyone cares about money. By taking more money, you are setting up high expectations and creating a high-leverage bet on yourself that you will deliver.

The rest of the organization only sees your title, and once they see you punching above your title on important projects, that leads to promotions. In my example at the bank, they see an AVP punching above their weight class, delivering important stuff. That person needs to be promoted to VP ASAP. This is where you want to be; upward career momentum and a reputation for punching above your weight are far more critical than most people realize. And more money can usually set both up in your favor.

Most people don't consider or appreciate how money impacts a career's upward mobility. Later as a leader myself, I saw this play out working closely with executives. I saw how they viewed indirect reports that got paid more. They pushed for them to deliver. I even saw HR make assumption that someone must be important to the team because they get paid more. All of that leads to more important work and assignments.

I used to tell my bank story to my reports because my experience negotiating with the bank changed my mindset. A lot of people came into the bank worried about titles, but it's the money they should’ve been worried about because titles follow the money. Not the other way around.

All of this to say I took the money. And if you have the chance, my advice will be, you should take the money too.