Symposium Re-Boot: Why You Should Stop Being a Loyal Employee
Note: I am reposting this post from last May, as it is somewhat related to Pat’s post on workplace culture, which you can (and should) read here. FWIW, I stand by this career advise as much today as I did 14 months ago.
It’s Stupid Tuesday over at Blinded Trials, and this week Russell asks what eras have we passed in our lives, when we declared “to [ourselves] and to others, ‘I once was this, but now I’m that?’” I’ve consciously ended a few such eras in my life. But one in particular that I noted over at BT made Kazzy scratch his head, and he asked me to clarify what I meant when I said this:
“My decision two decades ago to no longer be a loyal employee to anyone ever again.”
It’s the single best piece of career advice I can give anyone, regardless of your chosen field, and so I thought I’d post my answer to Kazzy over here in Off the Cuff.
For the first decade and a half of my working life, I tried as hard as I could to be a loyal employee regardless of employer. I got my first non-babysitting job when I was fifteen, and until last Fall I had been been a steady worker of one kind or another ever since. I even worked my way through college, after my dad declared that I was either going to be a business major or I was going to pay for school myself. There were a few jobs so terrible that I quit them within days or hours of starting (lookin’ at you, Kirby Vacuums), but for the most part I enjoyed whatever I did and liked whoever my direct supervisor happened to be. Because of this, being a loyal employee was always easy for me.
And then, as I approached the age of thirty, I decided I was tired being a loyal employee and shifted the entire way that I think of work and employment. More than anything else – school, training, or job experience included – that decision has positively shaped my career over the past two decades.
So what did it mean to stop being a loyal employee?
First, here’s what I didn’t mean: I didn’t become a Gordon Gecko, “me-first,” “show-me-the-money” jerk. I didn’t decide to start stabbing my coworkers in the back. I didn’t even decide to put my own interests above the mission of whatever company employed me. In fact, I did the exact opposite.
I became an owner.
Or to be more precise, I began both thinking of myself and acting like an owner of whatever organization I worked for. I began treating people I had previously thought of as “my boss” as respected partners; at work events I’d actually introduce them as “colleagues.” If they were gone and a decision needed to be made, I made it – even if it was a decision outside my pay grade. (Provided, of course, that I felt like I knew what the best course of action was.) “Act now and beg for forgiveness later” become my new mantra.
Employers had always been telling me that I should never show up with a problem unless I also had a solution. I knew full well that when they said such things, they were really talking about the minutia they found irritating. (The copy machine is out of toner and Cheryl has the key to the storeroom, but she’s on vacation!) Nonetheless, I decided to take them at their word and show up with detailed solutions to such problems as “we could use more revenue,” or “turnover is too high because we’re not very good at hiring the right people,” or “maybe our organization would be more efficient if we were flatter.”
I might not have been an equal with everyone on the hierarchical chart, but I acted as if I was. And here’s the funny thing: once I did, so did everyone else. I began being asked to planning meetings I’d never been welcome to prior. I found that people in the organization who were removed from me be several degrees of separation began asking my opinion on new ideas, and sometimes even invited me to partner with them to implement those ideas.
Obviously, I didn’t call every shot I overstepped my bounds to make correctly; in fact, I made a lot of mistakes. Some companies could have fired me for making those calls. One did. (The last employer I ever had before becoming an actual owner, in fact.) And over the years I have worked with several people who think of power over others as a job perk. Those people certainly didn’t like my approach, and would let me know their disapproval in no uncertain terms. Ultimately, though, I decided that if an organization didn’t want someone like me then it was a bad fit for both parties. Same thing with the manager who wants a seen-but-not-heard employee. That person and I can each be successful, but we probably can’t be successful together. Nothing personal.
If this sounds like I’m telling you to become the alpha dog in your yard, you do not yet understand.
What I have learned about employment is this: At its most fundamental level, it is an equal partnership. The power we think our employers have over us (and too often, they think they have over us) is largely in our own minds. Employment is a trade of goods and services, like any other. As such it should be viewed as a partnership. It is true that your employer can fire you – but it’s also true that you can quit. There are times when your employer can afford to be without your services and you can’t afford to be without their paycheck; but there are also times when the opposite is the case. I did not start to look at myself as an owner and partner because I thought myself better than my peers; I did so because I began to see that all of us were equally as important to the organization as our “superiors.”
Once I started to approach my own employment differently, I began to approach the employment of those that reported to me differently as well. I insisted that they become more and more autonomous, and act as full stakeholders to whatever degree that they wished. The Prime Directive of any team, department of company I have ever run since then has been this:
If you make a decision that I would not have, I reserve the right to correct you afterward – but I will never get angry with you for your having done so. If you refuse to make a decision because I’m not there or you do something you think is wrong because you thought it’s what I would do, I very well might.
So that’s my career advice for the day: be a full partner in whatever you do, not just an employee. Treat your organization’s mission as if it really means something to you; if it doesn’t mean anything to you, go find an organization whose mission does.
That is all.