A lifetime ago I worked with a woman we’ll call Martha, who flew into a minor rage when she learned that a co-worker from another department was promoted over her.
Her reaction surprised me, not because we were in the middle of a full staff meeting, but because she was the opposite of a model employee—doing the bare minimum, arguing with the boss, and nipping at a bottle of rum in her desk drawer (only on special occasions, of course).
But Martha had seniority, and in her worldview, she was entitled to that promotion. Sadly, “I’m entitled to a salary,” is a popular belief that just doesn’t jibe with reality.
Of course, I’m not speaking to a Martha, I’m speaking to a sophisticated achiever who knows that your rewards are not tied to how many hours or years you sit in a cubicle.
The success metric is: Are you effective?
If you can answer, “Yes,” you’ll enjoy job security for life, in any economy, and I’ll wish you well as you sip cognac on your veranda overlooking your 50-acre private island in Fiji.
But if you can’t, here’s how you can make yourself more indestructible.
1. See yourself as a business.
“There is no real security except for whatever you build inside yourself.” —Gilda Radner
Whether you own a business or not, you are already an entrepreneur, so start seeing yourself as the CEO of your own personal services corporation.
Whether you are flipping burgers or leading a 100-person product development team for a tech giant, each day you go to work, you are selling a service to your client (your boss) who determines your level of compensation.
“See yourself as an independent contractor selling your services back into your company on an hourly rate,” says self-help giant Brian Tracy. “See your current employer as your best client, at the moment.”
A company that doesn’t make the client happy will be out of business fast. So how do you ensure that, as the leader of your company, you become a purveyor of happiness?
You do that by delivering massive value.
2. Know how to create value.
“The only true security in life comes from knowing that every single day you are improving yourself… that you are valuable to your company, your friends, and your family.” —Tony Robbins
Somewhere in high school, between the cafeteria and report cards, we’re handed this neatly packaged worldview that, if you just work hard enough, you can get all that you want in life.
But if that were true, high school dropouts working three minimum wage jobs would be as comfortable as CEOs, and all startups would IPO if the founders just work 90-hour weeks.
The reality is that you and I are rewarded for the value we create, whether that’s inventing a life-saving medication, or a more perfect fidget spinner.
When you understand how to create value, you’ll be indispensable no matter who signs your paycheck. This means understanding what people value (remember: it’s not always what you value), so start by asking a lot of questions.
If your audience is your ideal client, put out a survey, or conduct user interviews. If it’s your boss, ask what is her No. 1 goal?
In either case, you won’t always get a straight answer—people are notoriously bad at articulating their true desires—so continue to observe like a scientist in the field.
Here’s a hint: Above all, every human wants to feel a certain emotion—love, respect, security—so maybe your client wants to write a book not for the money, but to feel heard? Maybe your boss’s primary motivation is to coast into retirement, and not to change the world?
3. Be a leader in all that you do.
“Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.” – Victor Hugo
Too many employees wait for instructions. We all know that person who performed all their duties to the letter, but was laid off anyway. Nine times out of 10 this is because no boss wants to constantly micromanage their staff; they want people who will get busy without a prod.
Initiative is the domain of the leader. You may be saying to yourself, “But I’m not a leader, nobody has given me that responsibility!” Leadership isn’t a title, silly. It’s a mindset and a choice—to step up, even if that stairway leads outside your job description.
Maybe you work in a mailroom and see a way to improve a process, or in a cubicle and see a way for the company to go paperless. The leader comes to the boss with solutions. A follower doesn’t even see the opportunities. Which type of person do you think is more protected from layoffs?
4. Build relationships. (Forget “networking.”)
“Leave every single person who intersects your path better, happier, and more engaged than you found them.” —Robin Sharma
As much as we value the brilliance of the individual, it’s only through relationships that we thrive. Nobody builds a fortune from their hermit cave; even remote workers need to play with the other kids from time to time.
As many achievers will tell you, your network is your net worth.
But there are two opposing approaches to creating a safety net of supporting connections around you. The first is a dirty word called networking. It involves going to “networking events” where the attendees spend as little time as possible with as many people as they can, and the winner is the one who hands out the most business cards. (I’m dramatizing, but you see the point.)
Networkers enter a room with the attitude, “What can I get from these people?”
The superior approach is to create a network based on relationships—fewer, but deeper connections; quality over quantity. Relationship builders approach interactions asking, “What can I give?”
Does this sound almost like how friendships develop? Bingo. If you choose to work with people you enjoy, your work will feel less like work and more like enjoying the company of friends. Take care to develop true friendships, not just collect business cards.
5. Do just 5% more than expected.
“There are no traffic jams on the extra mile.” –Zig Ziglar
We love people who give us more than we expect. Bosses raise both eyebrows when a project is finished early and under budget. Customers gush to their friends about that above-and-beyond service. And your romantic partner will never forget that day you planned the scavenger hunt that ended with a surprise dinner at your favorite restaurant surrounded by best friends.
You could have just followed the job description, stuck to the refund policy, or microwaved some pizza pockets for your soulmate. But nobody remembers the times you do what’s expected, because that’s the standard that most of us adopt: “good enough.”
That’s why it’s so easy to go the extra mile—hardly anybody is driving on that freshly paved, six-lane highway! This need not mean doing more than everyone else; that kind of one-upmanship is a race to burnout.
Simply rise beyond your own limits. That doesn’t mean doubling your exertions to be outstanding; an extra 5% effort can often generate rave reviews. What does that look like?
Maybe at home you do the dishes… AND clean out the toaster. At work you finish that research your boss asked for… AND tack on a page of analysis that shows how you can save $50k a year. With your customers, you might register them for the seminar but also throw in six free coaching sessions plus your book.
When you do more than expected, you get a reputation for delivering more value than you are paid to. Your own value rises in turn, and you become that much harder to fire.
6. Be the smartest person in the room… about just one thing.
“The only real security that a man can have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience and ability.” —Henry Ford
Do you try to be best at everything at work? The best salesperson and marketer and coder and writer? If that’s your strategy, all your work will be mediocre.
There’s nothing wrong with being a jack-of-all-trades (this is a badge that most entrepreneurial-minded folks wear proudly), but there is also power in specialization.
Ask how you can become a critical linchpin to the organization. How can you collect the knowledge, create the relationships or generate the ideas that none of your colleagues can, at least in one area?
Do you work in the marketing department and notice that your email campaigns are opened as often as a can of anchovies? Then take an email marketing course and bring new info and solutions—which none of your colleagues have—to the next team meeting.
You don’t need to demonstrate 5 out of 5-star performance in all areas of your job description. If you have just one quality that your boss or customer highly values, and can’t live without, then how can they ever let you get away?
7. Flaunt your good works.
“Leaders are not modest… these qualities and behaviors are useful for getting hired, achieving promotions, keeping one’s job, and obtaining a higher salary.” —Jeffrey Pfeffer
The Western World’s prevailing ethics teaches us that a good deed done is all the sweeter if you downplay it. “Set the table without your parents asking you,” is the one piece of priestly advice that stuck in my brain after Catholic school.
Better still if nobody but you knows about it. We get that warm, fuzzy feeling from anecdotes about kind strangers paying for the coffee of the person behind them in the drive-thru.
There’s nothing wrong with anonymous generosity, but the benefits multiply if you let people know about your actions. It not only inspires others to do good deeds, but shows people your true character.
This is invaluable at work, where job security is on the line. Too many employees do excellent work that goes completely unnoticed, or is taken for granted. If you want to keep your job or your customers, you need to justify your existence from time to time.
This doesn’t mean constantly tooting your horn with tales of your heroic deeds; too much self-promotion feels gross and will backfire.
But DO drop a subtle and well-timed piece of information here and there with the people that control your fate—your boss, for example. Want to be uber-subtle? Share the information through a third party, like your boss’s assistant, who you know will pass along the message.
8. Love change. (It’s exciting!)
“Security is mostly a superstition…. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.” —Helen Keller
Here’s a juicy paradox for you: Those who are least attached to security have it in abundance. That’s because the truly “secure ones” are flexible in their methods for creating wealth and abundance.
A fixed mindset individual will see only one way to make a living right now: to hang on for dear life to their existing job, with the strategy likely to be: work harder. But no matter how vigorously you rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, that thing still might sink.
Economies tank. Industries change and companies fold. Hanging onto the dream that manufacturing is coming back to your city, or the restaurant will be full again by Christmas, or people really do want to drive to a video store to rent a DVD on which they can eventually pay a late fee, can be catastrophic.
Hoping for all to stay the same, including the job you so fear losing, is futile. Change is coming, so you might as well learn to love it.
“You are already naked,” said Steve Jobs. Learn to love change and embrace the roiling tides. Without change there would be no new life, no growth, no opportunities, no surprises and no excitement in your life.
The Future Belongs to the Freelancer
Even before COVID, the idea of one company guaranteeing you employment for life was a fantasy.
Manufacturing has already fled “South,” automation eliminates $80k per year positions, and disruptive startups restructure entire industries while you sleep. Should we throw up our hands and accept whatever McJob the economy throws us? Heck no!
On this frontier there is more opportunity than ever for those with the entrepreneur’s mindset.
A 2019 study found that more than 35% of the workforce in the United States, or more than 57 million people, are freelancers, and the pandemic certainly bumped that number higher.
And these freelancers are not just dog walkers and Etsy side-hustlers, but many are top performers in their fields.
This is not advice to leave your salary behind to strike out on your own. But it is a call to adopt the freelancer/consultant/entrepreneur mindset, because it’s the best way to create invincible job security in any economy, no matter how many crises are swirling in the outside world.
Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock.com