Saturday, April 28, 2007

4. You have to risk your job in order to do your job! Losing your job is not the worst thing that can happen! (It can often be the best!)

Far too many people seem to think that the worst thing that can happen to them in working life is losing their job, especially, losing their job as a direct result of their own actions. The embarrassment of failure and/or the eventual threat of economic insecurity resulting from unemployment tend to limit our willingness, indeed maybe even our capacity to be creative and take risks. But risk taking is exactly what we have been hired to do.

The higher the risk, the higher the return! This premise is one of the fundamentals of economics. Despite this I have often heard people say things like “we need to minimize risk” or “we need to eliminate risk”. From the perspective of economic theory minimizing or eliminating risk is the same as minimizing or eliminating profitability. In any healthy company the direct opposite of this should be true; we should encourage our people to take risks.

I don’t know how many times I have seen looks of panic on the faces of various managers when I say things like this. I can almost hear them saying “What if an employee takes a risk that bankrupts the company?” When I talk about risk I am not talking about jumping out of an airplane without a parachute or playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun. These activities are not risky they are stupid. Risk taking should be the result of intelligent fact-based decisions making full use of our skills and knowledge while pushing the frontier of our competence. Risk taking is not foolish squandering of resources or wild guesses!

Companies in highly competitive industries will fail in the long-term if they cannot develop a culture that encourages risk-taking. The same is true of the individual careers of all employees in these companies! My own theory is that the greater your responsibility in the company, the greater risks you must be willing to take to succeed. Unfortunately, there often seems to be a reverse correlation between seniority in the organization and willingness to take risks.

There are many more jobs in the world for people who make $50,000 a year than there are for people who make $2,000,000 a year. It would not be strange if someone who has a $2,000,000 job were inclined to do whatever possible to keep it. They might also be inclined to avoid anything that might jeopardize their positions!

Risk avoidance will lead to failure in achieving results and ultimately to losing your job. Risk-taking over the long-term will lead to growth and profitability, however, on the short-term a risk that doesn’t work out well could also lead to losing that cosy high-paying job. If you do the math at an individual level you could come to the conclusion that you are likely to end up getting fired no matter what you do. If you play it safe and maybe offset declining profitability and lose of market share with cost-cutting initiatives you might just be able to prolong your employment longer than if you take risks. I am not saying that there are never scenarios where you should play it safe or that cost-cutting for that matter is always wrong. I am saying that these initiatives can and sometimes are misused by managers for there own benefit to the detriment of the company!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

3. Never get yourself into an economic situation where you can’t afford to tell the company to go to hell!

Many years ago I worked together with a man who I respected very much. I was around 30 years old and he was closer to 60. Back then nobody used words like mentor to describe those kinds of relationships but looking back now he was clearly my mentor at the time. One night when we had been working late and sat talking he said to me “Never get yourself into an economic situation where you can’t afford to tell the company to go to hell!”

He continued by explaining that if you get yourself into the “Golden Cage”* two things are likely to happen. First of all you risk losing your job satisfaction and secondly your value to the company will decrease. When you sacrifice your economic independence you may stop taking risks and saying what you think (especially when what you think might be uncomfortable for your superiors). Paradoxically, the freer you are to walk out the door the greater the value you are likely to create for your company.

I remember a boss I had at my first job after graduating from college. He was always trying to get me to buy a house or at least an expensive car. One day I asked him why it mattered to him if I bought a house or a car. He said very bluntly that if I got into debt I would be more likely to stay with the company. This might very well have been true but the question is if this was really the best thing for my boss or the company? By increasing my dependence on the company I might very well have decreased my productivity (as well as my job satisfaction). There is no doubt that motivation increases productivity. As long as I work where I work because I want to, my motivation will be high. When I start feeling that I work where I work because I have to, my motivation and productivity will decrease. Add this to the “fear factor” (or prostitution factor as one of my friends calls it) ,that is the fear of doing or saying something that might jeopardize my job, and you might well have taken all the entrepreneurial spirit out of me.

*Some call it the Golden Cage! Maybe you have a job that doesn’t stimulate you intellectually. Maybe you even hate your job! The problem is that it pays the rent. It might even pay a great deal more than the rent. That job you hate may be providing you with a lifestyle that is hard to give up. Nice cars, nice house (or houses), fancy food, great vacations and a nice boat.