There’s a ton of ridiculous job titles in the startup scene, but usually, they’re somewhat transparent. Surely a Chief Meeting Designer must do something related to meetings and a Senior Clubhouse Executive probably spends all their time yapping on Clubhouse.
So that’s why I was a little stumped when I came across Marian Johnson — a Chief Awesome Officer. Does she just go around… being awesome? Why would you pay someone for that? What the hell does a Chief Awesome Officer do?!
“Well, the first thing about being Chief Awesome Officer is that every time I introduce myself, there’s a round of laughter,” Johnson explains when I call her up to bombard her with questions about her title.
“This might actually be the strength of the title,” Johnson says. She tells me it helps get people’s attention and makes her and the organization more approachable by not taking themselves too seriously.
Marian Johnson heads the Ministry of Awesome — yup, that’s the name — a starting point for entrepreneurs, startups, and innovators in Christchurch, New Zealand. Basically, it’s an independent not-for-profit startup hub dedicated to growing the ecosystem in the country by providing entrepreneurs with the tools they need to grow their ideas.
“The title is also meant to show we’re zero BS… although I suppose Chief Awesome Officer could sound super BS-y, but I think we’re the opposite,” Johnson adds and laughs. “We’re basically making fun of ourselves with stupid titles.”
This bullshit/non-bullshit method of breaking the ice with a ridiculous title is actually quite effective and has a surprisingly deep backstory.
Back from the ashes
On February 22, 2011, as the people of Christchurch were just finishing their lunch breaks, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the city. Most of the city center was reduced to rubble in the intense quake, 185 people lost their lives, and thousands of people were made homeless.
“The inner city was completely flattened. Any building that didn’t fall down on that day was then taken down later. We lived in a donut outside the city center for a solid five years,” says Johnson.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, many were forced to move away from Christchurch and its population dropped considerably for a while. But the people of Christchurch were determined to rebuild their city and revitalize the community.
It was in this atmosphere that the Ministry of Awesome (MoA) was founded. The informalness of the name and its supercharged positivity was meant to jumpstart the startup ecosystem in a city reeling from a natural disaster.
Although construction is still ongoing, Christchurch is bustling again. When Johnson took over the MoA in 2017, the organization pivoted from earthquake recovery to building a more robust startup ecosystem across the country.
Currently, the MoA has 24 high-growth startups in its incubator program and numerous external innovation engines where Johnson and her team connect corporates with startups to solve the problems they face.
Ok, good to have an over-the-top job title after a crisis — how about now?
“I did think for a moment about changing the title,” Johnson admits. “When I saw the job title ‘Chief Awesome Officer’ it just made me think of all those stupid job titles at Google and I didn’t take it seriously at all “
Johnson could’ve played it safe (AKA boring) and changed it to CEO to appear more serious to the conservative organizations she’d have to work with, like banks and governments. But in the end, she decided to keep the title because of its rich history — and its effectiveness.
She says the title lays a lot of the groundwork for her. Before she enters a room as a Chief Awesome Officer, people already know what to expect from her and what she’s about.
“The title and the name of the organization shows founders that whatever their moonshot idea or crazy dream, here’s one organization who’s ready to get behind you.”
The secret to being a Chief Awesome Officer
We’ve established that despite sounding like startup nonsense at first, the title actually brings a lot of value to the organization’s bottom line. But what makes a good Chief Awesome Officer?
Johnson thinks it all comes down to being an incredibly positive and energetic person, mixed with commercial sense and evangelist skills. Oh, and “you have to say ‘awesome’ a lot,” she adds.
“Yes, and weirdly, each of us… oh, I don’t know if this is good or bad, maybe I shouldn’t mention it? But we’ve all been American, which is strange,” Johnson says and laughs.
Got any weird jargon job titles at your startup that actually kinda make sense? Let us know at [email protected]!