My father once told me a story about an employee at his work, though I think the lesson I’ve come away with over the years is not the one he intended. He talked about a man who sat at a desk, and on the wall next to him were scribbled dozens if not scores of phone numbers, with nary a label in sight. When someone asked him “Hey Bob, who do I call to reach [Department X or Vendor Y]?” he would look intensely at the wall, then read off the phone number orally after turning back to the person asking.
This was before the advent of cellular phones and synchronized corporate address books, and when my dad said that a number of people had offered Bob Rolodexes or other means of cataloguing his contacts, he waved them off. “Job security” he said, pointing a thumb back toward his wall that was all but indecipherable to anyone else. I believe my father told me this story to encourage me to learn the importance of becoming invaluable to a company, that the cost of replacing me would be too great a burden for them to consider.
My maternal grandfather worked for the same company from the day he left the navy until his retirement. My father worked at the same facility for nearly twenty-five years before retiring. In the 1980s, the advice of “be invaluable” may have meant something different than it does today. As someone who tries to help clients focus on process improvement on almost daily basis, I think back to that story and my first thought of Bob isn’t “he’s valuable,” it’s “we need to get rid of him immediately” instead. Just based on that story, Bob struck me as an impediment to efficiency, someone who was perfectly content to stay where they were without developing themselves.
I don’t want to come off as someone who doesn’t respect or finds little value in someone who does a good job without the desire for advancement; I worked with someone thirteen years ago in a helpdesk call center, and she had been one of the old timers back then. She’s still working the same position, putting in her eight hours a day, getting the job done. There’s definitely something to be said for finding your niche, but ultimately I don’t think the company would fare any worse if she had to take an extended leave or left the company altogether. She may work hard, but ultimately the position of “Tech Support Level 1” is not a difficult one to fill.
Though my current company has a number of individuals who have reached twenty or even thirty years with the firm, most people of my generation have been there fewer than ten, and by many modern standards we’re the outliers compared to our peers for having been in one place as long as we have. I myself have been here five years, which is almost as long as I ran my own company for, after a long stint of two- and three-year positions with other groups.
About ten years ago I first heard a saying that has resonated with me ever since: “if you’re not replaceable, you’re not promoteable.” I liken it to something of the opposite of the Peter Principle, in that a competent employee can’t advance because they are seen as “too valuable” in their current role, no matter what their desires or the need of the company may be.
Personal and professional development is something I take seriously, whether it’s staying atop the latest industry news, taking continuing education to broaden my skills, or talking with other industry professionals to get an alternate perspective on situations I encounter. I recognize that I have been incredibly fortunate and downright lucky to have received the opportunities I have, and that while many times I worked hard to chase success, more often than not everything came down to a roll of the die.
I’ve been incredibly under the weather for the past several days, which is in my opinion the absolute worst way to spend a three-day holiday weekend. I took Friday and Tuesday off of work, but though I still felt terrible this morning, I made it a point to go in, at least to talk with my boss and let him know I’m actually sick. Why would this be a concern?
Something I find distasteful is purposeless idleness. There’s plenty of reasons to be idle at different times, and I think those are all well and good; what I dislike is the anxious waiting around, wishing something would happen. In my position right now there is a lot of idleness, a lot of waiting for the phone to ring or my inbox to wake up. My boss knows my schedule is wide open and that I make a specific point to do the best job I can at every appointment that is set, the latter of which has lead to a phenomenal growth of business over the past year. Though I am in the office every morning at 8:00 per request, I admittedly run out of things to do fairly quickly, because the vast majority of my work relies on another department getting me involved. Unabashedly this means I hang around the office for several hours, doing what I can to contribute to the rest of my team, and then on more days than not have nothing to do after lunch. At around 2pm, I wave to my boss and go home; I still answer the phone and respond to emails with the same rapidity as if I were in the office, but if I’m going to be sitting around doing nothing, I’d rather be doing that at home, not having to fight through commuter traffic afterward. My job in particular could be performed anywhere, so my being present in the office isn’t a functional requirement to getting things done.
About six months ago I had a discussion with my boss and the president of the company (who used to serve as my direct boss, when I was in another position). We discussed the relative lack of workload and my frustration thereby. They assured me that things would pick up, and largely wanted to make sure I wasn’t skipping off to work a side job or anything of the sort. That comment really stuck with me, not only because doing so would break my non-compete agreement, but also because that’s not the kind of person I am; they are paying me to perform a specific job and I will be available and ready to perform that job when and where necessary. Aside from a few sporadic doctors appointments and a weekly lunch with a friend, there are very few hard stops during my work day.
I went in this morning, intentionally unshaven and still coughing up a storm—and even got in before my bosses—to show them that I haven’t been using these days off to work some other job. Though I have somewhere in the neighborhood of an entire month’s worth of PTO banked, I felt incredibly guilty that I took two days off and wanted to talk to them face to face. “There’s no side-hustle,” I told them, “I just feel miserable.”
Sadly all of this reminds me of a cautionary tale that goes along with the intent of my father’s story, one I saw in person. While working for an international media distribution company (we were the intermediary between record labels and groups like iTunes, Spotify, and other online channels), one of our two QA testers went on vacation for a month. He had been with the company for a few years and had never touched his PTO, so he was looking forward to a nice, relaxing vacation.
About three weeks in to his time off, the company realized that maybe we didn’t need two QA testers at all, as we had been getting along just fine without him. Admittedly the company was going through some growing pains and he wasn’t the only one who lost his job, but if it weren’t for his vacation, it could have very well been the other QA role that got shuttered. In some respects, perhaps that employee didn’t make himself valuable enough to keep on staff.
When there’s work to be done, client-facing communication and project management, I try to do the best I can, and by most metrics I’m successful. Our sales are up, even to the point of having to hire additional engineers in expanding markets, and our client base has good things to say about our service in general and my handling of their accounts in particular. But there’s that darn caveat—when there is work to be done. When there isn’t, I’m just a cost center to the company, another entry against the bottom line.
When everything’s said and done, or at least the blog post is written, it boils down to me trying to thread the needle between working to remove redundancy and increase efficiency, and justifying my own position. I have neither the access nor the permission to really get at the heart of some of our internal processes I’d love to work on, so for now everything is client-focused. I’m taking online classes to become more familiar with the principles and practices of business and process analysis, and attempting to support my team where and how necessary, but still so often my days are spent idly scrolling through my inbox, lamenting the lack of new projects coming my way.
Recently my team submitted a proposal for a project with a government agency, which required all of us to include resumes and related work history. “Should I be worried that some of you had yours ready to go?” my boss asked of myself and another employee. “Nope,” I replied, almost expecting his question. “In today’s world, keeping things up to date is just prudent.”
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that business models are changing, and at times that means that we as employees and entrepreneurs must change as well. “Adapt or die” is a popular anthem, but from where I sit it’s a true one.