Monday, April 28, 2008

The first rule of keeping your job

I don't need to reference any white papers to clue you in to the fact that the economy is slowing down, and everyone is all atwitter about how bad it's going to be. Suddenly, all the career experts are crawling out of the floor boards to tell everyone how to buckle down for doomsday.

I'm no exception.

First of all, there are some cuts you just can't avoid. Sometimes, you're just in the wrong division or in the wrong company. There is no substitute for plain old good luck. For the rest of you who will have an opportunity to win while others lose, this message is for you.

The first rule of keeping your job is to make your boss believe that you care about what he cares about and to the same degree.

Notice I didn't mention working hard or being a top performer. Those things may be important if your boss lives on spreadsheets and dashboards, but most real bosses don't make decisions purely on such things. What they want to know is who is going to make my job easier, who is going to make me feel better about myself, and who is going to go along with whatever I want to do. And let's face it: being a top performer just isn't an option for some of us.

So here is my plan for how to to make your boss believe that what is important to him is important to you:
  1. Ask him. "What are you trying to accomplish this quarter/year?" "How are you measured?" "What's your philosophy on (enter department function here)?"
  2. Ask him for stories. "What's the worst place you've ever worked?" "Who was the best person you ever worked for?" These kinds of questions are good for lunch or more casual conversation, and most people will have interesting stories they like telling. Look in the stories for clues about what your boss values.
  3. Test for nerves. "What am I doing that I shouldn't be doing?" "What are your pet peeves?" "What should I never do in this job?" You're looking for things that set him off and put him on his soapbox.
  4. Ask other people. "Have you ever seen Bob really mad? What happened?" "Have you ever seen Bob really like someone? Who was it and why did he like them?"
  5. Remind him of things he's said. There's nothing like relating a current situation to something your boss said in the past. It shows that you listen and retain what he says.
  6. Volunteer solutions for his frustrations. Once you know what gets his goat, come up with solutions to reduce that frustration. "I'm getting sick and tired of all the late time sheets from people... I'm going to set up a system that rewards/punishes people, so we don't have to keep dealing with this." Now your boss feels like you are really working for him.
  7. Selectively self-promote. Make sure he knows when you did things he likes. No one likes a constant self-promoter, but if you're selective about when you do it and give your boss the credit for the idea, you can make it work for you. "Hey, remember the meeting two weeks ago when you said we should recycle? I called waste management, and they dropped off recycle bins. Great idea."
  8. Make friends with his friends. There will come a time when your boss will talk to his friends in the company about who goes and who stays. These things don't happen in a vacuum, and a big part of the decision will be based on what his friends think. If your boss thinks you're great, but his friends think you're worthless, you're making him look bad, and you're a goner. You want his friends to lobby for you. This means finding ways to do those people favors and following the first 7 steps for those people.
  9. Convince other managers their departments are really interesting. Yep, that's right; hedge your bets. In the event that either it's too late to convince your manager or he doesn't have the power you thought he had, you need to hunt for a job in another department like it's the great depression, because once you're out of the company, you won't have access to the other managers. When you get your coffee, take the long way back to your desk and swing by people in other groups. Fawn over them. Call them lucky.
  10. Don't talk about your fears. No one wants to hear water cooler talk about the latest layoffs and the price of gas skyrocketing. I know it's tempting, and well-meaning people will try to suck you in, but it makes you look weak. If you are worried, you are weak, and just like any jungle animal, your manager will go for the weak ones first.

My final piece of advice is to stop reading about this topic. The media is taking this story all the way to the bank, and when we come back out of the slump, they will be fighting it tooth and nail. Even in the worst of the last recession, unemployment was still pretty low, and I made a handsome living in recruiting during the 2001-2003 "bubble burst." So quit obsessing and go make your boss like you.

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