You Are a Product

Think of yourself as a product for a few moments. Your employer (or client) continuously refills on what you have to offer.

Now think of how you treat products.  The ones you like and seek out vs. the ones you just kind of use because they’re there or because switching costs are high.  There are also products you use that you really don’t like, but feel there is no good alternative (I’m looking at you, AT&T which has essentially a monopoly where I live).

Which are you?  Are you a product with a devoted following or are you just there because you’re there?

One of the difficult aspects of the modern economy is that there are new, competing products being released all the time.  Just like music moved from tape to digital, there are now alternatives to what you’ve been doing for years.  Not many people (if any) said, “Think of the tape manufacturers – it’s not fair, we need to keep using cassettes!”  Instead, we saw that CDs (and then MP3s and then streaming) were better alternatives and so we switched.

Jobs are “disappearing” because there are so many better alternatives to hiring for those jobs.  From outsourcing to machine learning to robotics and drones and autonomous vehicles – you aren’t competing against just other people anymore.

A new model year for you is just around the corner.  Is the 2017 edition of you going to sell out or sit on the shelf?  You need to become your own product manager, which means understanding your true competition, your actual costs (if you are unfamiliar with “fully burdened labor costs” then Google it – or just add 20% to your pay to estimate it), your actual value, etc.

So, as the year winds down give some serious thought to your entire offering – from packaging to warranty.

Here’s to wishing you a year of Apple-level devotion and margins!

Your #1 Job

Your #1 j ob is to make people want to work with you.  If you’re ever faced with a work decision, use that measuring stick first by asking if your response makes someone want to work with you more, less, or the same. Since a large part of my brand is clarity, I’ll break this down into specifics, but please keep in mind that this list isn’t comprehensive and that environments vary widely.

  • Deliver.  Getting your work done is critical. This is the biggest influencer on whether people want to work with you.
  • Smile. Not just in your facial expressions, but in your words and voice. Being pleasant is a close second to getting your work done and close enough that I’ve seen ineffective people retain their position far longer than they should simply because everyone liked them.
  • Innovate.  While this is a pretty overused term, I’m using it here to specifically mean “do something or create something new which is a pleasant surprise”. It only takes 1 or 2 small innovations a year for people to want to work with you and see what’s next.
  • Bleed. You are going to make a mistake – own that mistake and do everything you can to make things right. You should not, of course, intentionally create problems but it’s pretty safe to say that problems will come.  If you are the type of person who never blames others nor covers things up then people will notice (consciously or not) and want to work with you.
  • Support. Keep an eye out for others having difficulty and jump in to get their head above water.  Someone who can keep the team moving in the toughest of times will be sought out and held onto.
  • Teach. If you can make others more valuable then you are a force multiplier and people will want to work with you.
  • Delight. The occasional left-field surprise goes a long way.

The challenging aspect to all this is that it needs to be genuine – for example pleasant can’t be an act, it needs to be a commitment.

How NOT to Ask for a Raise

To close out my year-end thoughts on salary and raises, let’s cover some anti-patterns in asking for a raise.  These are frequently occurring ill-advised behaviors that tend to drive managers crazy even if they don’t tell you they do.

  1. Benchmarking yourself against someone else.  This is usually some form of “Bob gets paid x and I’m at least as good as Bob, so I deserve x (or x+)”.  I’ll admit, the logic is solid – the problem is that the information is flawed.  It all comes down to “you’re not Bob” or, more specifically, “You have so little actual information about how you and Bob both fit into the organization that your comparison betrays your naïveté”.  This is one to never, ever do.  At best, you look naive.  At worst, you look like you can’t stand on your own merits.  Focus attention on your value – that’s what you’re selling.
  2. Benchmarking yourself against “the market”.  This one is an all-time favorite of mine.  It’s less awkward than targeting an individual within the organization, like Bob, and so it’s very tempting. What you’re saying (intentionally or not) is that you view the organization as a commodity which can be easily replaced based purely on the dollar figure.  My knee-jerk reaction to this line of reasoning is usually, “Right back at ya, brother” (since I’ve only ever had guys be this ham-handed about it).  So, you’d like to play the game of maximizing economic efficiency without regard to any other factor?  Keep in mind that that was my life/job as a crappy manager at the beginning of my career since most managers make that mistake early, lose someone valuable, and reflect upon it every time they argue for “overpaying” a force-multiplier employee.  I get it, you see ads on Dice, or Monster, or Stack Overflow, and think “Wow, that could be me”.  Perhaps it could be and, if that’s what you want, I’ll help you get there.  I would rather have someone work somewhere else and be happy than feel like they’re trapped on my team.  Keep in mind that someone else’s willingness and ability to pay more money isn’t an obligation for your organization to pay you more.  In other words, the two are independent variables as far as your request for a raise is concerned.  Yes, your manager should be aware of what “the market” is offering and should factor that into your pay or risk losing you – but suggesting that you deserve a raise because you feel you could make more somewhere else once again reveals a lack of understanding of what you have to offer.
  3. Suggesting you deserve a raise because of what you’ve done this year. This is where we start to get into a tricky area and one that trips up a lot of employees.  Let’s say you busted your ass all year long and, at the end, you feel unappreciated with a smaller than expected raise.  What happened?  Well, it could be any number of things.  Maybe you busted your ass in Q4 and that erased your memory of coasting through Qs 1, 2, and 3.  Maybe you busted your ass on the wrong things.  Maybe you felt like you busted your ass, but really you were just keeping up.  There are so many possibilities, most of which boil down to “you didn’t work with your manager to ensure that your actions were aligned with the organization”.  Lastly, a raise should be for future work – a bonus should be for past work.  Just like a Franklin Mint plate, past performance is no guarantee of future returns (although some plates have gone up in value).  This is especially true if you were at all vocal about your extra work.  Now, the pseudo-exception to this is if you took on extra work which shows that you can provide additional value on an on-going basis.  For example, if you took over part of someone else’s work because their workload has increased and you’re able to continue to do so rather than triggering another hire, then that’s legitimate value. Even in this case, however, the previous work should only be used as evidence of success going forward – always focus on the future.

These certainly aren’t the only mistakes made during “the ask”, but they are the ones I’ve seen enough to rattle off from the top of my head.  If you’ve seen another mistake or, even better, if you’ve seen something you think might be a mistake then please leave it in the comments as a service to those who face this in the future.

How to Manage Your Manager

Last time we talked about how to get a raise by aligning yourself to the organization’s goals with the help of your manager.  Specifically, I mentioned 1-on-1s and quarterly reviews – but maybe you don’t have those.

This is a mixed sign – if your manager knows all about 1-on-1s and has simply chosen not to have them then it may signal lack of focus on the team members.  On the other hand, if your manager simply hasn’t been exposed to the concept then this is a great opportunity to provide coaching from below.

Regardless of the reason (and it will probably become clear as soon as you request time on the schedule) you need your 1-on-1 time.  This is the first step in managing your manager – but before you take the first step, you need to remember the first rule:

Managing your manager is all about making his/her job easier – while ultimately it’s about you, it’s not about you first.

Violate this rule and things are likely to go poorly.  Every manager actually wants pretty much the same thing: The most productive, most satisfied team with the least amount of effort.  This isn’t due to laziness as much as management time is consumed from all directions: up, down, and sideways.  When managers get efficient, they have buffer and slack to deal with the unexpected (both positive and negative) and get into the productive zone.  When demands from below start to consume an inordinate amount of time or energy, it leaves the manager in a compromised state to deal with the demands from above and the side.  What this means to you is that if you make it easy to manage you, your cost/benefit ratio takes an immediate uptick.

Back to the first step: You need 15 minutes.  While a good 1-on-1 should really be 30 minutes (sometimes more) that time should be split between each side.  In the beginning, if you’re asking for time then only ask for what you need and that should be 15 minutes.  This way your manager doesn’t need to prep (which would represent additional time/energy) and only needs to listen.  You need to prep, your message and questions need to be clear, and anything which requires thought or planning is a posed one week to be discussed the following week.  This time should be spent making course corrections on your progress to your quarterly and annual goals.  It is not “how am I doing?”, but rather “This is what I did and here’s what I’m planning next” to ensure you’re on the right path.

15 minutes – make them count.

Quarterly reviews can replace one of the 1-on-1s each quarter.

NOTE: This is not an ideal situation by any means – the ideal is that your manager wants 1-on-1s, schedules them proactively, and comes prepared with 15 minutes of material to discuss.  Hopefully you’ll get there by showing the value of the time, but be patient since it could take weeks or months.  In the meantime, you’ll be making progress and really helping to make managing you easier.

What if you can’t get 15 minutes a week on the schedule?  Honestly, that’s a bad sign but you can still do your part by sending whatever you would have discussed in person via email (or Slack or whatever is common in your environment).  Truly, this is a last ditch effort but is worthwhile nonetheless.  Even if it doesn’t get read, simply preparing the information will focus you more and help you perform better.

In summary, you can make yourself easier to manage by putting some of your manager’s work onto your own plate – just be proactive, focused, and clear.  This will also help you prepare to run your team later in your career.