American management has a tendency to latch onto fads, most of which are labeled “fundamental shifts in how businesses operate.” These fundamental shifts rarely last long, but while they do they can make life miserable for employees trying to advance their careers by doing their jobs well.

A case in point: the “De-jobbing of America” (aren’t you glad IS folks aren’t the only wreckers of English on the landscape?) According to this theory, the company of the future will be virtual, employing nearly nobody while contracting for skills as it needs them.

While this is a valid enough idea in small doses, many businesses, ignoring the Greek philosophers’ advice of moderation in all things, drive it right off a cliff.

Implicit in this approach to human resource mismanagement is a perspective that employees are bags of skills. Company executives know what has to get done and the skills needed to do it. Hire those skills when you need them; get rid of them when they’re not needed anymore.

Not all companies buy into this approach, of course. Many distinguish between short-term and long-term needs, and some understand the importance of less definable character traits such as loyalty, morale, commitment, and other traditional virtues. Regardless, prudence dictates you view your employer in these terms – at best you’ll be pleasantly surprised, at worst you won’t be caught off-guard, and in all cases you’ll do a far better job of managing your career than you will be relying on your employer to enhance your career.

In fact, whether or not the “de-jobbing” philosophy turns out to be good business or not, it promotes a healthy attitude toward career management. That is, you’re responsible for it. The best companies will provide you with education and opportunity. That’s the limit of their role in the process.

Last week’s column presented the 70% Rule – if you don’t deliver at least 70% more in value than you accept in salary, your employer does better by putting your salary into mutual funds. While the 70% Rule provides a guide for job security, it doesn’t help your career advance at all. You advance your career by treating yourself as a product, and managing that product as professionally as you can.

Product managers talk about the “4 P’s,” yet another annoying encapsulation of perfectly useful ideas. The 4 P’s are Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. (“Place” really should be “Marketplace” – the definition of who you sell to and how to reach them – but “3 P’s and an M” doesn’t have as much pizazz.)

At least once a year, and probably more often, take some time to analyze yourself in these terms.
Start by defining yourself as a product. What functionality do you provide? Do you write code? Analyze requirements and define specifications? Troubleshoot thorny network problems? Work with company management to link technology and organizational strategy?

What differentiates you from your competitors – everyone else looking for the same job title. Are you exceptionally reliable? Hard working? Innovative and ingenious?

What bugs need fixing? Do you have a tendency to procrastinate? Drop the ball on critical tasks? Misunderstand ambiguous assignments without helping clarify them? Remember, there’s no such thing as a bug-free human.

What enhancements do you want to incorporate into the next release? Do you want to become more diplomatic? Delegate more effectively, or at all? Use object-oriented programming tools? Manage time better?

Your temptation will be to choose your skill enhancements based on what you want to do next. That’s fine. Keep one thing in mind – you don’t define the value of these new skills. From a career-planning perspective you’re better off striking a balance between the skills you want to acquire and the skills your market – everyone who can help your career advance – values most.

Product, however, is just one fourth of the mix you have to attend to. More on this next week.

This one first ran March 4, 1996. It’s still one of my favorites and some of the best advice I’ve ever given. If I hadn’t written it then, I’d write it now and wouldn’t change one word of it.

– Bob

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“I’ve worked my tail off for 20 years and what do I get?” complained a former co-worker on his last day. “Doesn’t that count for anything?”

Here’s what I didn’t point out: we all work under an unstated employment contract. Based on financial mathematics, it supersedes all written contracts, union protections and employment laws.

It’s called the 70% rule (by me), and nobody ever seems to mention it. It says, “If you don’t deliver at least 70% more than your salary in value, you’d better start making other arrangements.”

Here’s why. Let’s imagine you earn $40,000 per year. Add 25% for fringe benefits, taxes and so forth, and you get $50,000. Office space, furniture, telephone, personal computer, and other facilities and overhead expenses — at least $10,000 per year — brings to $60,000 the amount your employer spends each year for your services.

Indexed mutual funds earn about 12% per year over the long haul. By paying you the money, your employer forgoes that income — $7,200 the first year. Add it in and you’re up to a whopping $67,200 per year. In round numbers you find the true cost of having you around comes to your salary plus 70%.

According to the 70% rule, working hard doesn’t matter. Managing the coffee fund doesn’t matter. Being right all the time doesn’t matter, and probably annoys everyone when you point it out, too. Your loyalty and all the great things you did five years ago don’t matter either.

If your job doesn’t add enough value, the quality of your work doesn’t matter, and you — not your employer — are responsible for recognizing the fragility of your situation.

Only one thing matters: delivering more in perceived value than you absorb in costs — your salary plus 70%. (Why perceived? Think of unheard trees falling in uninhabited forests. As with quality, recipients, not providers, define value. Nobody has an accounting system that can show the real dollar value each employee delivers, so value in this context is very much a matter of faith and perception.)

Ask yourself how much value you actually deliver. If your company suddenly decided to stop doing what you do, would it lose more than it saves from your salary plus 70%? Who at senior levels of your organization understands and believes in the value you deliver?

Here’s a harder question: will you and your job deliver the same value next year? The year after?

How many batch Cobol programmers failed to ask this question and now wonder what happened to their careers? They delivered value right up until the point nobody needed much batch programming anymore. Then these hardworking, skilled programmers had no way of delivering enough value in the new environment.

American workers have believed in the idea of job security for decades. You won’t find security in employer goodwill anymore. You won’t find it in union contracts, either, nor in an in-flight magazine or a 3-day seminar on making a fortune in real estate in your spare time.

You won’t find it because it doesn’t exist.

What does exist is opportunity. You have to read your own tea-leaves and peer into your own crystal ball — that’s your job, not your employer’s. Then, you have to ask for the kinds of opportunities that will give you next year’s skills, so you can continue to add value in the future. Good employers give their employees opportunities to grow.

You can still fall victim to office politics. Dumb decisions in the executive suite can run your organization into the porcelain facility. The latest management fad can catch you napping or, worse, you can support the old management fad two weeks after your new manager jumped on a different bandwagon. The dollar can rise in international markets, harming the export situation.

Heck, the sun could go nova prematurely.

In the long run, though, the 70% rule puts you in control of your career, and provides the surest guide you have to continued opportunity and job satisfaction.