Article by Michael Pietrzak
A lifetime ago, I worked with a woman we’ll call Martha, who flew into a minor rage when she learned that a coworker from another department had been promoted over her.
Martha’s 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. Martha did the bare minimum, argued with the boss regularly, and nipped 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 their rewards are not tied to how many hours or years they spend in a cubicle. The real metric of success 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 a 50-acre private island in Fiji. If you can’t, I have some advice on how to make yourself nonexpendable:
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. Whether you are flipping burgers or leading a 100-person product development team for a tech giant, you are selling a service (your skills and abilities) to a client (your boss). Start seeing yourself as the CEO of your own personal services corporation.
“See yourself as an independent contractor selling your services back into your company on an hourly rate,” writes self-help giant Brian Tracy. “See your current employer as your best client, at the moment.”
A company that doesn’t make its clients happy will be out of business fast. How do you ensure that, as the leader of your company, you become a purveyor of happiness? You deliver 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 says we can get everything we want in life as long as we work hard enough.
If that were true, high school dropouts working three minimum-wage jobs would be as comfortable as CEOs, and all startups would IPO as long as their founders worked 90-hour weeks. The reality is that you and I are rewarded for the value we create, whether that means inventing a life-saving medication or perfecting the fidget spinner.
When you understand how to create value, you’ll be indispensable no matter who signs your paycheck. To create value, you have to first understand 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 your audience is your boss, ask what their No. 1 goal is. 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, etc. 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, not to change the world?
3. Be a Leader in All That You Do
“Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.” – Elbert Hubbard
We all know that person who performed all their duties to the letter but was laid off anyway. Nine times out of ten, 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 you work in a cubicle and see a way for the company to go paperless. The leader comes to the boss with solutions; the 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 is 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.
There are two opposing approaches to creating a safety net of supporting connections. The first is a dirty word: “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 get the point.)
The superior approach is to create a network based on relationships — fewer but deeper connections; quality over quantity. Networkers enter a room wondering, “What can I get from these people?” Relationship-builders approach interactions asking, “What can I give?”
Does this sound 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. Develop true friendships — don’t just collect business cards.
5. Do 5 Percent More Than Is 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 above-and-beyond service. 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 your 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.
“Good enough” is the standard that most of us adopt, which is why going the extra mile is so easy — hardly anybody is driving on that freshly paved six-lane highway!
Going the extra mile need not mean doing more than everyone else; that kind of one-upmanship is a race to burnout. Instead, you simply need to rise beyond your own limits. Even an extra 5 percent effort can 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 $50,000 a year. You might register your customers for a seminar and 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 the 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. In fact, this is a badge that most entrepreneurially minded folks wear proudly. Still, there is power in specialization.
Ask how you can become a critical linchpin to your 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? Take an email marketing course and bring new solutions — which none of your colleagues have — to the next team meeting.
You don’t need to demonstrate five-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, they’ll never let you get away.
7. Flaunt Your Good Works
“Leaders are not modest, and more importantly, the extensive social science research on narcissism, self-promotion, and similar constructs shows that 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 teach us that a good deed done is all the sweeter if you downplay it. 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. Sharing your story not only inspires others to do good deeds, but it also shows people your true character. This is invaluable at work, especially when 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. Do, however, drop a subtle and well-timed piece of information here and there with the people who control your fate (your boss, for example). Want to be uber-subtle? Share the information through a third party, like your boss’s assistant.
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 of creating wealth and abundance.
An individual with a fixed mindset will see only one way to make a living right now: to hang on for dear life to their existing job, often by working harder. Yet no matter how vigorously you rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, that thing 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,” as Steve Jobs said. 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 to the Global South, automation eliminates $80,000-salary positions, and disruptive startups restructure entire industries while you sleep. Should we throw up our hands and accept whatever McJob the economy gives us? Heck no!
There is more opportunity than ever for those with the entrepreneur’s mindset. A 2019 study found that more than 35 percent of the workforce in the United States is comprised of freelancers, and the pandemic has certainly bumped that number higher. These freelancers are not just dog-walkers and Etsy side-hustlers; many are top performers in their fields.
I’m not advising you to leave your salary behind and strike out on your own. I am, however, suggesting you adopt the freelancer/consultant/entrepreneur mindset, because that is the best way to create job security in any economy, no matter how many crises are swirling in the outside world.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Michael Pietrzak is a mindset and habits coach to entrepreneurs. He founded So You Want to Write? Inc., which helps writers improve and get published. Michael is passionate about weightlifting, great books, and playing guitar.