Take Five Steps To Increase Your Professional Value

May 11, 2009
In 2007, the world began the financial downturn that's now the new reality. Early hopes were placed on a quick recovery in 2008 after a “normal” recession, which we have come to realize was just the opening act. Now, daily news reports gush forth layoffs

Late in 2007, the world began the financial downturn we now have accepted as the new reality. Early hopes were placed on a quick recovery in 2008 after a “normal” recession, which we have come to realize was just the opening act. Now, daily news reports gush forth layoffs and corporate re-organizations and numerous other “efficiency measures.” Each new report increases the personal anxiety each of us feels. Am I next? If not, why? Is it only a matter of time?

The reality is that when things are good, getting to market fast is most important—just add more people to get it done faster and before the competition. But when things aren’t so good, i.e., today’s environment, cutting costs is most important—add more hours to each person’s load to get it done cheaper.

For engineers, especially product designers and the massive support organizations we build to get products from concept to customers, it is not always clear when one is an expense or an asset, a critical team member or a head on the chopping block. Rather than lose sleep worrying about it, each of us can take action to increase our own “staying power” by explicitly increasing our value to the companies for which we work.

The following five steps will help you secure your place in the future, in your current position at your company, and in the industry (read: other companies). In the world of personal financial planning, everything begins with assessing your present situation and figuring out your current net worth. The same holds true in your professional life. And just like our finances, when we get busy we don’t pay attention to our own “balance sheet.” So that’s the first step.

Assess Your Personal Professional Net Worth

Just as in a financial net worth or balance sheet, one must take stock of one’s assets and liabilities. Begin with your education, professional certifications, and licenses. My experience is in the real-time embedded firmware area, which unfortunately offers few opportunities for specific degrees. That’s changing now, though it’s too late for me.

While there are a few more opportunities for certifications, typically vendor-specific like a particular real-time operating system or development tool set, the embedded space places little value on a professional engineering license. Engineers usually have an engineering degree and perhaps additional programming courses or possibly a project management seminar. Even so, it’s important. Add to this area awards (if any) and other recognition like patents and published works. Don’t list professional organizations here, only awards or certifications.

Next, review your current and past experiences. It helps if you have old resumes, but usually a bit of time and thinking can resurrect the information. Detail the skills and project specifics that are recognizable outside a particular place of employment. What’s most important here aren’t keywords or buzzwords, though they are useful, but what you did that involved said concepts.

For example, on my first contract assignment almost 20 years ago, I secured a call from a recruiter because of keyword matches, which later prompted the question, “Do you have ASC 2 experience?” After many minutes, it dawned on me what he meant was ASCII. The lesson is that while keywords are great for a hit, context is essential if you want the job.

Include any meaningful contributions to professional organizations, such as whether you sat on a standards board and helped develop a new or revised industry standard. Describe what it was and what you personally did. Simply being a member of IEEE is not enough.

Lastly, and this is the hardest part, outline your intangible qualities. Do people ask you for help a lot? If so, asking yourself why they come to you may possibly lead to key “assets” you have that might not have shone during any particular project. For instance, does every project team seem to ask you to review its protocol? Do you typically spend time with new hires and junior engineers to bring them up to speed? Are you often called upon to provide customer training? All of these examples indicate an expertise that may be a hidden asset.

To complete this step, ask a few key colleagues you trust to review your assessment. Many will try to avoid this activity because it can be uncomfortable. It is key that you choose a trusted colleague, which may mean selecting someone you aren’t presently working with. Don’t forget to include your spouse in this process. Your significant other shouldn’t be the only reviewer, though, since you probably spend much more time at work than you do talking about it at home.

Once you finish this step, you are way more than halfway through the process. With that in mind, make sure you either really apply yourself to this assessment before moving on or iterate often to complete the assessment. In either case, now that you have acclimated yourself to soul searching, you’re ready to get real honest with yourself. It’s time to work on the “Liabilities” column.

Bolster Your Weaknesses

True net worth calculations take assets and subtract liabilities to find the “NET” worth. When you’re dealing with bank accounts and loans, this is fairly straightforward. As you saw in the asset exercise above, professional liabilities aren’t going to be that straightforward. Also, unlike getting a new loan from the bank, you probably won’t be sharing your column of liabilities with others. Yet to increase your overall value, you will need to make yourself painfully aware of anything that reduces your net value.

Again, make a list, but start this time with a forward-looking exercise. First, think about anything that would prevent you from taking an otherwise perfect job assignment. For example, you may be unwilling to relocate, travel, or commute, as external responsibilities like childcare may limit these options. Have you burned any bridges in the past when you left or changed positions at a company? If so, how far might that event extend? We all work in amazingly small worlds and industries. This part of the process may take several walks, runs, or long showers to get through, but the sentence you want to complete is “Here’s the job but...” Be brutal when you look for “buts.”

The other section of your liabilities that requires an honest inventory are the job aspects you don’t perform well. Do you typically miss deadlines? Do you hate to be interrupted with meetings when digging into a problem? Do you have a hard time working with others when the group decides your own recommendation isn’t the path to pursue? If you find yourself struggling to get this process started, visualize yourself in your manager’s role and having to build a team. What aspects of yourself would affect the team or role?

These are tough questions. While the answers won’t appear on your resume, you really need to know where you stand because only then can you improve yourself. And that’s the essential point of this step, to know what you want to work on. If you were fortunate enough to have found well-trusted colleagues for step one, you may also be able to ask them to help here.

Now you need to make a personal improvement plan. Just as importantly, you need to consider how you can take one or more of these challenges and turn them into an opportunity for improvement. Don’t wait until you’re looking for a new job. Make an appointment with your manager or supervisor to discuss one of these areas and develop a plan together. If you’re unsure whether this is a wise move in your circumstances, ask your trusted colleagues to run through this process with you first. Be honest but tread carefully. You’re exposing your weaker side but also letting management know you’re working to improve yourself.

You may want to choose one of the easier items first, spin it as a diamond-in-the-rough strength, and then develop a polishing plan. For instance, if you do really well on projects that follow your recommendations, but not so well when your proposal loses out, this could be due to lack of data and time you spent analyzing or presenting it. It may be your ideas are a great fit, but just didn’t fit the schedule or budget at this time. A development plan could be to make sure you document and detail (i.e., publish) what you know and don’t know so this information can be readily shared. A documented trail for yourself and others (when you share it) can be a valuable way of increasing your value. Also note that sometimes your path fails at some point. If it does, you have to come back to the table and try again.

Up to this point, you’ve outlined your strengths (step one) and weaknesses (step two) with a plan to eliminate or reduce the liability of your weaknesses over time. Most of what you have done so far is to arm yourself for the next step, which is to begin to make the case that your strengths (and improvement on weaknesses) are highly valuable and worthy of recognition by either your current or future employer. Moving ahead, it is time to begin positioning yourself. To clarify, positioning is a marketing concept that means, in this case, creating an image of yourself in the minds of your company leaders that shows how essential you are.

Promote Your Strengths

Getting your strengths recognized is much easier once you have taken inventory (step one). Also, a realistic understanding of one’s opportunities for improvement (step two) will help keep the focus on your strengths. The next step is to begin generating recognition of your value. With your manager or supervisor (in a larger company) or with the upper management team (in a smaller company), begin to take advantage of opportunities to share your successes, especially when they helped lead to generating or saving customer revenue. Also, enlist those you are helping—i.e., the salespeople and customers—to send in positive feedback. Making this happen is a skill that can feel awkward at first but with practice gets much easier.

Remember your last visit to the auto shop? More and more service organizations now take a few moments to inform customers that a satisfaction survey is coming and urge them to rate their service as excellent. This also creates an opportunity for them to address right there any service that was less than excellent. While you may not adopt the exact same tactic, reminding a grateful colleague, salesperson, or customer to share positive feedback about your performance is a valid and useful action. Also pointing out to your managers or supervisors what you have done and how it helped win or save a design helps them see what you have done and more accurately assess your value.

Be prepared, though. Demonstrating you can “deliver the goods” will set expectations that you can do so the next time. This will also lead to further recognition and ever more challenging opportunities to perform. You don’t need to brag, but all engineers need to be able to toot their own horn a little. Additionally, recognizing the efforts of others who have contributed can add even more shine to your own efforts. Being quick to take the blame (and step up to correct an error) and quicker still to share success only goes further to help you increase your value to the company. Of course, these can’t just be empty words. But the point here is that when you are doing the deeds, the words aren’t empty.

Letting others know what you do is important. But in tough times, you have to look at what else you can do. Chances are you already have more to offer and just need to get yourself organized to deliver it.

Take On A Second Role

We all have our hands full with the work we have to do today. If you don’t, that’s your step zero—get fully loaded. Even so, there are numerous opportunities to increase your value simply by looking at what you already do and introducing some formal structure around it.

For instance, if you’re a senior team member, you certainly have helped bring new additions up to speed. In your particular area of expertise, are there additional opportunities to spread similar knowledge? Perhaps another location or group in the company would benefit from learning more about the products, tools, or processes your location or group develops, uses, or follows.

Start with informal brown-bag sessions, and you will be presently surprised how much this improves your own situation. In addition, spreading knowledge spreads the workload as well. You will need to watch out and be careful to have the endorsement of your manager and probably higher management if this has a direct cost or looks like it could introduce risk into a schedule. In most cases, these fears can be allayed by starting small and setting your initial expectations a little lower.

Now look at and characterize your “label” within the organization. Can you adopt a “hyphen,” i.e., a secondary but still important role? If you are a strong individual contributor, can you become a player-coach by putting more formal attention into some junior team members? Perhaps player-manager is more appropriate if you are already in a lead role. In this case, the hyphen might come from taking the informal reports you used to provide your manager and turning them into formal, published reports. You also help your manager by providing ready-to-consume-and-pass-on pre-analyzed data.

If you’re a manager, look around for your hyphen. Manager-mentor is a great opportunity to help others along and get your second role. If you play this card right, you can even hone some new skills of your own. For instance, if you aren’t super savvy on the latest browser or e-mail tips and tricks, get your “mentees” to share their knowledge while you help them negotiate the corporate waters. Look good and do good, and get better at your job too.

One area that everyone should consider as a serious “second job” is documenting. In the early days of ISO9000, the mantra was “write it down and follow it.” This isn’t just ISO9000 anymore. It’s become good practice. However, documenting often takes a back seat when workloads increase. Make a point to look at your roles and responsibilities and make sure important processes and procedures are documented (small and large). Also, look carefully for those critical tasks you really don’t want to keep doing but get trapped doing because no one else has learned how to perform them. Document them and now you can pass the task on and move up to bigger and better things.

In general, progressing through the four steps above will yield a higher profile. But the whole point of this article is taking the bull by the horns. Now more than ever, being your own public relations agent with the ammunition from the above steps is what you have to do.

Increase Your Personal Visibility

Engineers are genetically predisposed to digging themselves deep into a problem and ignoring nearly everything else until it’s solved. This is fantastic for tackling specific problems, but it also tends to reduce one’s visibility. In times like these, though, visibility is essential. When hundreds or thousands of engineers are going to be ranked against one another, one cannot rely upon one’s immediate manager or supervisor to be able to communicate one’s unique personal worth to the company. All engineers must take every opportunity to get specific recognition for their work.

Being a silent high performer is not as good as being a vocal average performer with a strongly documented track record. This applies to anyone at any level. Leave a clear trail of your accomplishments and let people know how to find it. Depending upon your company and industry, your options here may differ.

At my company, we have a formal specification system, Web-based and available across the company globally (but not externally). We use this system to document business practices. We also have a company memo system where every employee has a “folder” for storing memos forever, available to everyone. This system has search and distribution capabilities as well.

Does this really matter? Doesn’t doing great work mean more than anything else? During a recent round of merit performance reviews, I heard this anecdote from a colleague. He was negotiating with another manager for the ranking of his reports within a larger field. When an impasse was reached, this colleague did a quick search in the memo system for his report and for the others in question.

Then, he showed the group of managers considering these reports the comparison of his report’s memo record (not just volume but topics covered) versus the scant offerings of the other reports. It was obvious to all which employee was delivering more value to the company from the evidence of the memos. It’s not just what you do. It is also the impact of what you do for now and for the future. Although past performance isn’t a perfect indicator of future performance, it is usually all managers have to work with.

Your Turn

These are the five steps for success. If you’re going to take a short cut, make sure right now that whatever you’ve done is recognized. To be most effective, this recognition must be not just what you have done but what you can do, are doing, and will do for the company in the future. To provide the clearest picture of your value, begin by taking stock of your assets and work on reducing the impact of your weaknesses. Actively promote your strengths while putting yourself into more situations where you can shine and do more to help the company and others by mentoring and coaching others. Finally, become your own PR agency by documenting the good you are doing and making sure others can find and use it. If you follow these steps, you will not only survive this difficult season, you will also position yourself to reap an unfair share of the rewards during the next up cycle.

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