Are You Professionally Relevant?
Not long ago, there was an unexpected meeting in a windowless conference room of a Fortune 500 sales company. Around the table were eight members of a product support team and their manager. The meeting started with a few jokes, a heads-up by the manager about several key dates coming up, and then he explained why they were meeting. Finance had cut the department's budget, and so it was likely that his team would have to cut some suppliers. Rather than make the decision unilaterally, he wanted everyone's input, because they had skin in the game. "I need to know, who can you live without and still get the work done," he said flatly.
The atmosphere in the room changed immediately. Some people unconsciously pushed their chairs back, brows furrowed. Others looked up at the fluorescent-lit ceiling as if seeking help from a higher authority. For several minutes, the only words that could be heard were "wow" and "hmm." For most of them, the suppliers were more than bodies in cubes, they were longtime friends.
Meetings like this happen in every business, small or large. (Did you read about the layoffs at Tesla?) Employees, contractors, freelancers—we are the most critical, most evaluated, and typically the most expensive budget item for a business. In Human Resources, they often refer to us as Human Capital. Like any asset, businesses evaluate us by our perceived quality, productivity, and organizational fit, relative to others. Those who don't measure up usually don't survive the outcome of meetings like this product support team had.
Nothing guarantees survival in business. However, you can always work to improve your odds. Here are a few suggestions to help you stay in your employer or client's "keep" column. (Note: I'll be writing more about each of these ideas in future LeanED blogs.)
Know the Business. My real education began when I started my first job out of college. I learned that the skills, facts, rules, and practices I had acquired during the previous four years hardly impressed my employer. The company required that I set those years aside and start doing things their way, use their terminology, and adhere to their practices and processes. Understanding how this business worked took months, but it was their business, their money, and their future.
Knowing the business is one of the most important ways to stay relevant. Think of it as being in a marching band. Everyone must know the tune, know where they should be on the field, what the steps are, and where every other member of the band is at any moment. If someone is out of step, out of place, or out of tune, disaster looms. Knowing the business makes everyone's lives easier.
Trust. Do your boss or team members believe you can do the job? The answer will vary, depending on how long you've worked with them, your track record, and how confidently you behave. Having other people's trust makes your life easier because people will share information with you more freely, offer to help, ask fewer questions, and generally be on your side.
If you're just starting with an organization, your first task is to build people's trust in you. To them, you're an unknown quantity whose only qualification so far is the approval of the hiring manager. The best advice I've heard about developing trust at this stage is, "shut up, listen, observe, and learn." Later you will use what you've learned to make sound decisions, develop logical courses of action, and resolve problems, all of which will be noted and appreciated by your observers.
If you've been at a company for a while, the trust you receive is a direct result of how you've treated others and your success delivering on your assignments. People have long memories when it comes to perceived offenses, so to the best of your ability, keep your interactions factual, professional, non-judgmental, and humane. A string of successful projects is also handy. However, the reality is that some projects will go better than others. It's important to know how to respond when things don't go as planned and be ready to acknowledge the problem, take responsibility, and work for improvement. A tough project handled professionally is sometimes the best way to earn and keep others' trust.
Finally, if you're not confident that you can accomplish a task, people will sense it. Maybe you already have too many responsibilities, or you've never done anything like the assignment you're being asked to take on. Well, that brings us to the next topic.
Willingness to Grow. In every job I've had, I was asked to do something that was outside of my job description. When I was a project manager, I ended up designing and specifying the frontend of an enterprise accounting system. When I was an editor at a major book publisher, I had to learn to program so the company's leading product could be available electronically. At first, these assignments frustrated me. I felt like the companies were trying to save a buck by making me do the work instead of increasing headcount.
What's often the case is that you’re assigned these "stretch" tasks not because of a company's frugality but because someone—probably your manager—believes you have the ability. As a department director, I knew the strengths and interests of most of the staff. I knew that one person in particular had a rare combination of curiosity, creativity, and attention to detail. She wanted to program but didn't have any formal training. When the need arose for an Access database to manage a large multimedia resource, I asked if she wanted to prototype it. I told her that I thought she had the aptitude, interest, and problem-solving chops to be successful. She accepted the task and delivered a valuable tool for the department. She later went on to become the company’s system administrator.
Don't turn down opportunities to grow. If an opportunity presents a challenge that motivates you, if the thought of being successful excites you, and if you are eager and able to learn, go for it.
Adaptability. Companies are constantly adapting to an ever-changing business environment. They are either restructuring, downsizing, consolidating, or rebuilding. All of that activity directly impacts people's jobs. One day a social worker has a normal case load. Tomorrow there are layoffs and that person's caseload doubles. A business acquires a competitor and then decides to adopt the company's workflow management tool. Now its employees must quickly come up to speed on new software and business practices.
Almost every job eventually requires you to change the way you're used to working. Your attitude in these situations leaves a strong and lasting impression on your manager and peers.
These suggestions are commonsense. But don't discount what is common and makes sense. I am continually convinced that both of these attributes seldom receive the respect they deserve nowadays.
Keep Your Training on Track!
President, LeanED LLC
LeanED is an internet-based service created to meet the need for effective training that leads to individual mastery. For more information, please visit www.leaned-train.com.