With regret, I’m fired.
I don’t tend to pay much attention to other people’s advice. You could say it’s one of my key development areas. I wish I was better at it, I really do, I wish I was better at listening when someone’s trying to help. It’s not that I think I know better, not at all. I regularly run into people who quietly inspire me, who make me think a little differently, who make me wake up to the world. It’s just that on the whole, advice, especially the variety dispensed in the form of ‘life hack’ articles scattered freely online, rarely proffer much value.
But I do admire people who find time and energy to write, people who choose to express their thoughts, that’s a wonderful thing. Just as long as they’re not trying to improve me or, worse, save me from my happy mediocrity. Because, yes, I’m one of the mediocre middle and in spite of the untold terabytes of self-actualisation evangelism available, I really don’t think that will ever change. But why should I care? I accept that I’m far, far below exceptional. Exceptional people, regardless of how they got there, get recognised in the street, they have a million followers, they get written up in the news. Most people are not exceptional, it is here, quite categorically that the exception proves the rule. I am almost certainly like you, normal. I don’t charter planes to Necker (when he’s actually there). I’m not changing the world nor am I saving it, not the polar bears, not our collective souls. To be sure, I’m barely the captain of my own ship, let alone a master of the universe (read Musk, Zuckerberg et al) and I’m totes cool with that because crucially and by the grace of my secular God, I am also dizzyingly far above the poverty line, something I try to be mindful of every day.
It’s why shallow productivity parables and ‘life-hack’ articles titled things like, ‘Slay Your Gushing Inbox Now’, tick me off good and proper. They won’t propel me up into the stratosphere of the exceptional, nor, if ignored, will I fall into destitution. Their net gain is less than zero, if that’s possible. I particularly gnash my teeth at pieces that explain how to raise funds for your start up. Could it really be that 300 generic words written blissfully free of any specific context will tip the odds against a wily, battle-scarred venture capitalist? If so, awesome! Err, guys, what we waiting for? Let’s do this! I’ll book the launch party. You invite Ashton Kutcher.
Ok. I’m being a facetious tool.
My personal view (and this is true in real life as it is online) is that in order to advise without antagonising, you must be sure advice is sought. However, in the spirit of thinly veiled personal brand building, let me go ahead and break my own rule. Rules are meant to be broken after all.
So, here’s some unsolicited advice for anyone who wants to clamber a few rungs up their career ladder. Grab your ass. You’ll amazed how powerful a few hundred words can be.
Because, it’s really simple.
If you want to be front of the queue for every available pay rise or promotion in your company, you need to do one thing: you need to be part of the 20% of your workforce that contributes to 80% of the company’s success because, as a rule of thumb only one in five of your colleagues matter to the corporate mission, whatever that mission is. Most often it means increasing profit, but not always, it could be cash neutrality or something more exotic like innovation (but probably not). What ever it is, the first step toward joining the 20% is finding out what it is. When you know, cordon off an area that squarely bisects yourself with the critical path and move on in.
Hold on. How can I be so sure that only one in five generate the vast majority of the honey? It’s called the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule and it’s horribly accurate.
So, if you do indeed feel a bit neglected by your corporate masters, it’s probably because you’ve drifted a little. It’s time for some honest personal reflection. Take a cold look at what you do. How close are you to the critical path? Or in other words, did your accomplishments this week tangibly move the business closer to success? Yes? No? How much? Be honest.
The thing is, many of us have an idea of our ‘dream job’, and some of us are lucky enough to actually get it. In any case, and what ever you may do (be it dream or waking night-terror) far too often we focus our attention on our job in isolation of the bigger picture. The rationale is (in a sense) very sound, it goes like this: I’ve been hired to do a particular thing. If I work hard and do that thing very well, I’ll be thanked with more money and, in time, elevated status.
So, we strive to improve our competence. We team-work, we read around our skill-sets, we seek out new best practices, we attend conferences, follower bloggers, blog a little ourselves (after all, it’s important to be a thought of as a thought leader). We keep showing up, we keep keeping on.
But if we don’t know what success means for our employer and if we don’t know whether we are directly contributing to that success, we can be pretty sure we’re not part of the 20% making the biggest difference. We are the ‘others’.
We’ll increasingly and inevitably get frustrated because, despite our diligent (and occasionally valiant) efforts, we’ll be overlooked again and again for promotion and pay bump. When we are not a financial priority, we are almost certainly doomed to labour in vain. Frankly, why hike the salaries of replaceable staff?
Meanwhile, members of the 20% club are getting annual pay-rises, their star continues to rise, it burns ever brighter as the CEO grows fearful they’ll fly the nest, and so the perks and privileges keep on coming, much to the frustration of the 80% spectators.
The thing is, hungry, ambitious people manoeuvre themselves into the top 20% at almost (and sometimes) any cost. They may well sacrifice the expertise they spent years training for in order to step in, on and up. Many regard these people as ‘utter tools’ however, for them, it’s more important to be part of the 20% than it is to excel at any particular discipline, but these two factors are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Look at the Ive.
But what if it’s just not possible? You know you’re ambitious, you want to be successful. You’re talented and dedicated. You’re a big picture person. But there seems to be no way to enter the 20% where you are right now, this could be for two reasons: 1) your talent is too far from the critical path, or 2) you don’t care much for the gang you’ll be joining and the cool-aid they’re glugging.
Let me give you a simplistic example. Let’s say you are the HR manager of a legal firm that employs 50 people. The likelihood of you being part of the 10 people who matter most is slim. Your talent is not that close to their critical path. Now imagine you are an HR manager working for 50 person HR outsourcing company. You’re now slap bang on the critical path, your chances of being one of the 20% is much, much higher.
So, if you do decide you don’t belong in the 20% with your present employer, but you want more from your career, then you must liberate yourself. With regret, you must fire yourself.
My advise (and I’m aware that you’ve not asked for it) is to do this very discreetly. In fact, tell no one. And please don’t be tempted to stage a theatrical Jerry Maguire, ‘Who’s with me?’, moment.
As you start the process of attending clandestine interviews, please be clear about your new objective. You don’t just want a job. Indeed, you don’t (actually) want a mere pay rise. Manifestly, nor do you want ubiquitous, vague rhetorical promises of career progression (carrots are for mules, we want carrot cake!). No, in fact, you’re carrying out your own form of due diligence. You are investigating to see if you can join the 20% who make the biggest difference to that company.
Because you want to be vital, critical and crucially, as indispensable as possible.
You should be asking questions like: ‘what’s the single most important goal for your business right now? What’s the most important way that this department contributes to that goal? Who can’t you live without? Why’s that? What do they do? How do they do it? What’s their background?…’
This style of questioning has three benefits at interview stage. Firstly, it elevates you above the banal and marks you out as big picture thinker. Secondly, this line of attack subtlety puts pressure on the interviewer to impress you rather than the other way around. Thirdly, and most importantly, their answers will tell you what and who they place most value on and if you like the sound of that.
In conclusion, please remember, if you’re not creating meaningful value, you won’t be valued, no matter how good you are at doing what you’re doing. It’s obvious, which is why it’s easy to forget sometimes.
Good luck. And, you’re welcome…
… no really, don’t mention it, it’s nothing.