When I was in my early 20s, I landed what everyone - including me - thought was a dream job: prestigious organization, upmarket central London location, and a great salary. Yet I hated every minute of it. I didn't connect with the mission of the organization or my colleagues; their values, hopes, aspirations, and ambitions were all absolutely alien to me. During the year I worked there I felt just about as comfortable as you do turning up to an event wearing the wrong clothes. Because I was so unhappy, I was unproductive, too, so I wasn't building my career or contributing to the business either.
Teachers around the United States are losing their tenure due to changes in laws that base their pay on performance, not seniority. Even Larry King, long a pillar of the broadcasting community, will lose his slot to someone overseas.
We live in a world economy that is convulsing from paying people for much too long to deliver mediocre results. The bottom lines of organizations, large and small, for- and not-for-profit, are now affecting every individual's personal bottom line.
The myth of job security
The concept of job security itself is relatively recent. In the post - World War II era, workers were grateful for any job they had. They knew that every job was dispensable, and they knew they had to fight daily for their ability to keep their job.
In writing my book Invaluable, I had private conversations with workers from the Greatest Generation. What I found shocked me. While many people stayed in companies long-term, they did so out of practicality and tenacity more than loyalty. The firsthand stories I heard were of men and women who always looked for a better opportunity, but maximized their earning potential in their current position. In short, employees in that generation were grateful for their jobs and took nothing for granted.
Over time, as the world economy progressed, people from subsequent
generations began to take their employment as a given. Contrast the post - World War II era with the job market of the 1990s and even the mid-2000s. For decades, employees have had an expectation that they would earn a certain pay because other people make the same. College graduates have long believed that getting a degree was a guarantee of securing a corporate job. Now we're seeing that that bubble has burst, and the job market is a highly competitive, highly volatile place.
Are you invaluable?
To survive, we must adopt the survival skills our forebears had. The first step to taking control of your own career and job security is not to know the right answers, but to ask the right questions.
One right question is: "Am I invaluable?"
Are you someone your company doesn't want to live without? If you left, would your co-workers feel the pain of not having you there? Would they beg you to come back? Are you irreplaceable?
To avoid a semantics debate about whether or not someone is truly replaceable within a company, allow me to clarify. My homespun definition of what it means to be invaluable or irreplaceable is this: to be someone the company really, really doesn't want to live without.
As I go out and speak to various companies and ask employees this invaluable question, I'm a bit shocked. I'm not shocked that employees don't know the answer - many don't. What is truly shocking is how few employees have ever asked themselves that or a similar question. Many still hold to the myth that their job will always be there. Many believe that because of the size, industry, or nature of the organization they work for, they have job security.
By asking yourself the invaluable question, you place the responsibility for your job security where it belongs - with you.
I tell my consulting and coaching clients that I strive to deliver a value of at least three times what they are paying me. That means if they pay me $1,000 to consult with them for an hour, the result of that hour should at minimum be $3,000 to their bottom line. If I can give three dollars back to a client who pays me a dollar, who wouldn't continue to work with me forever?
This "rule of three" as I call it applies to every employee in any position in any organization in the world. To become invaluable, you must provide exceptional value every single hour you work. You must deliver a bottom line return-on-investment far beyond your paycheck.
Is it possible?
Recently, my company asked both employers and employees from hundreds of companies around the world, "Is it possible for an employee to become irreplaceable?" We found an interesting divide.
Employees in general are skeptical that it is possible to become irreplaceable to a company. On the other hand, employers often believe, and believe strongly, that it is very possible for their employees to become irreplaceable.
Also, when we asked those same employees what traits or skills someone would need to possess to become irreplaceable, they would typically give generic answers. Loyal, dependable, and hardworking were standard responses.
Employers, however, would most often answer with very specific traits and skills. For instance, the owner of a mom-and-pop store told us that an invaluable employee can see the business through the eyes of the owner. A CEO of a manufacturing company spoke of an employee by name and described how she understood a critical system better than anyone else in the company.
There are two main insights from our research. First, employees need to understand what value means for their organization. Each company has a different set of rules.
Second, employees need to understand what value means to their superiors, because each superior has a different definition and measuring system. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to job security.
Many employees, when seeking to improve their value, ask, "How do I get my boss to notice me?" Often they believe that getting noticed will help them get a raise, get promoted, or improve their job security. This is the wrong approach. You can get noticed by your boss in many ways - most of them not good.
Rather than seeking attention, seek to be wanted. Since each company or boss has a different set of desires, you must discover what those are. The best way to do that is by simply asking questions. Ask your superior questions such as:
- What can I do to make your job easier?
- What can I do to be invaluable to you?
- What's the one thing I'm not doing right now that you wish I were doing?
These simple questions are incredibly enlightening. As you take action on your superior's suggestions, you become someone she will want to work with for a very long time. Your superior will begin to dread the thought of ever replacing you, because
you understand her desires better than any other employee would.
Two critical mistakes
In addition to seeking to get noticed rather than seeking to be wanted, employees often make two very critical mistakes.
The most common mistake is that employees try to expand their responsibility before they have fulfilled the job they were asked to do. In Invaluable, one of the characters quotes a verse from the Old Testament that reads, "To obey is better than sacrifice." Before you make suggestions or present new initiatives, you must first accomplish the job assigned to you, and do it well. Doing your job and doing it well are critical steps to gaining permission to expand your responsibility and make suggestions.
The second mistake employees make in trying to increase their value is telling instead of showing. One of Invaluable Inc.'s core values states: "Results speak much, much louder than ideas, words, or titles." In other words, if you have something you think should be done to improve the company, take initiative. Try it, test it, measure it, and then come back and share your results. Average, replaceable employees share opinions - only a mouth is required. Invaluable employees, however, demonstrate their ideas in action.
You are in control
In the end, the lesson we can learn from asking ourselves, "Am I invaluable?" is very positive. Although job security as we used to know it is dead, we have control.
Employees can not only secure their jobs but advance their careers in any situation or economy. It's a matter of asking the right questions, understanding the rules of the company and the boss they work for, and then delivering results beyond their current pay.
The employees who do this will always have a job regardless of what happens in the marketplace, because they are invaluable.