Too many people hold back at work. They do the equivalent of “clock in, clock out.” Then they wonder why they aren’t making more money, being promoted, or having recruiters knocking down their door.
When you hold back at work, waiting on an unknown future event to unlock your potential and your commitment, the primary person who suffers is you. In the process, you’re almost certainly underperforming.
If the number one thing you can do to increase the trajectory of your career is to find talent-company fit, the second most important is to act like an owner.
Act Like an Owner
When an owner shows up to work every day, they don’t think, “Just eight hours until I can get out of here,” or “If I get this one thing done, that’s probably enough for today.”
No, they think: the more focused and effective I am, the more impact we’re going to have with our work. The more impact we have, the more money I’m going to make. I’m going to work as hard as I can to make that come true.
An owner of a business is so committed they have to force themselves to have the discipline to STOP working, not the other way around. Owners do whatever it takes to produce results. The alternative (failure, joblessness, bankruptcy) is too painful to consider.
As an owner, your goal is to make the business grow above all else. If you want to increase the trajectory of your career, you need to have the mindset of an owner by making the business grow above all else.
It’s not about hours. It’s not about how “hard” you feel like you’re working. It’s not about how good you feel about yourself for clearing your inbox. It’s about results.
How does your team create value?
The first step in acting like an owner is to understand how your role helps the business grow. Let’s break it down:
- Marketing and sales — Get new customers. There is no other measure of success. You can build the brand, Tweet something clever, send 100 sales emails. All those things might be worthwhile — the only way to know is whether they lead to new customers.
- Customer service — Make customers happy so you earn more money from them. Yes, there is a higher philosophy here around taking care of people. But the business objective of taking great care of your customers is so that they’ll spend more money with you in the future.
- Engineering and product — Build a product that creates customer value and inspires word of mouth marketing. People don’t pay for bad products. And they sure as hell don’t do your marketing for you if your product sucks. Your job is not to solve hard technical problems. It’s not to “scale the application.” It’s not to express your creativity through design. The goal is to make a product people love enough to pay for.
- Logistics and operations — Make things work more efficiently to save money and become more profitable. Your job is to make sure the business is more profitable when you’re selling 1,000,000 widgets than it was when you were selling 1,000.
- HR and people — Hire the best possible talent for the money. Make sure those people are as productive as possible. Yes, build great culture. Yes, make people feel seen, heard, and appreciated. But ultimately, make sure whatever you spend time on leads to higher levels of productivity and value delivery from each person on the team.
The game called career
You might read this list and think, 1) none of this applies to me or 2) this sucks. Hear me when I say: this isn’t about feelings, this is about what creates business value. Creating business value gives you the best possible chance of getting what you want from your career.
You’re playing a game called “Career.” And the way you win the game is to experience as much meaning as possible at work and to be financially compensated in a way that allows you to provide a great life for your family.
The fluff of business matters and creates much of what we enjoy about work day to day. You must cut through that fluff to the core of your job’s business purpose if you want to accelerate your career and maximize your earning potential.
You don’t have to let go of the things you love about work in order to create value. But you must never stop creating value if you want to grow your career.
Does your job description deliver value?
Sometimes, a great manager or organization will have written your job description in such a way that your job perfectly aligns to creating value.
This is rare, but it sets you up to simply do what you were hired to do and create value in the process. If this is the case for you, your job is simple: execute at the highest level you can at the exact job description you were hired to do.
More often, your job description was written because your manager or organization *thought* that’s what would drive value, but they don’t actually know.
If you do the job as it’s written and find that it doesn’t drive business value, eventually your manager and company will realize the same thing. You have every incentive to use the job crafting technique we’ve covered previously to reshape the job into something that consistently delivers value.
The best way to do this is to do the job as it’s written in the description and then take ownership for the things no one else wants to do or thinks to do to help the company grow.
A business is always constrained by the money it can spend to grow. That means there are never enough people for the amount of work that needs to be done.
For some people, this feels like a burden. For others, like you, it represents an opportunity to seek out ways to create value that have little to do with your job description.
Two examples of creating value outside of your ‘job description’
Example one: imagine you’re working in customer support at a software company. Your job is to answer customer support requests by email all day every day.
A customer writes in about a problem. You give them a solution as quickly as possible. You an do a lot to drive value in a role like this. But the leverage you have is fairly low — it’s low value work on things considered. You’re one of many people solving the same problem.
But you also have a unique competitive advantage for creating value: you know the biggest problems all of the customers face.
The easiest way to solve their problems is to tell them how to work around the problem in the software. The best way to solve the problem is to make the software better so it doesn’t create confusion.
“But I don’t have control over that,” you say. “Yet,” I reply.
If you know you want a high career trajectory, you can’t stay in customer support answering customers service tickets!
You’ll never have the kind of impact or make the kind of money you want. So you need to turn the opportunity into leverage for progress. A high trajectory individual would spend their morning, nights and/or weekends learning code or design. These are the fundamental skills that allow you to fix software problems.
A rookie would ask to transfer to a design role as soon as they finish their first design course. A professional who understands value creation would keep doing their real job while using their new design skills to design mockups to improve the product to fix customer problems at the root.
Example two: imagine you’re a content writer on a marketing team at a direct to consumer e-commerce clothing company. Your job is to take a topic from the content calendar and write an article on the topic. Then you hand it off to the editor and SEO specialist to write the headlines and edit to maximize search potential.
You can make a decent living as a content writer, but the career trajectory is relatively low. You need leverage.
Marketing’s goal is to get new customers. Search engines are one of the best sources for new customers. Content is a way to create search traffic to a website that turns readers into customers.
You should do everything you need to do to write the best possible articles by optimizing for 1) search traffic, 2) highly quality content to keep the reader engaged all the way to the end, and 3) content that pushes the reader towards a buying decision for one of your products.
If your articles get the most search traffic and convert the most readers into customers, you’re delivering massive value for your job description. This alone will give you more leverage, but it won’t fundamentally change your trajectory.
Once you’re writing the best articles, you should expand one step up the value chain by learning SEO skills. In the process, you’ll learn how to research what terms have the most potential, how to structure content to land at the top of search results, and how to capture high intent search attention.
Your articles will get even better as a result. During your research, you’ll find 100s of topics you should be writing about to drive more traffic and customers.
If you go on to study content strategy, you can turn your writing and SEO skills into content strategy.
If no one is in charge of the content calendar, take charge yourself. Make a content calendar that’s well researched, optimized for search, and that aligns to selling more of the most important products for the company.
This creates leverage and proves your value. Now you can aim for a promotion internally or apply for a job as a content strategist or editor in chief of a company’s blog. This is a fundamentally different trajectory than you had as a writer.
The three most important things to read on acting like an owner
- Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink – Jocko is a former Navy Seal and his writing comes with the expected no-nonsense vibe. This is a book about owning negative results, even when you’re not in charge. You always have ownership over outcomes. This book will teach you to think about your role differently.
- Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky – It’s just what the title says, with a focus on bringing creative ideas to life. Creativity drives progress. Progress drives value. Scott encourages you to keep an entrepreneurs’ mindset, even if you work for a boss.
- Anything You Want by Derek Sivers – You can have anything you want, but not everything you want. This is the essence of the tradeoff between investing in the asset that is your career and sacrificing in your personal life at the same time. Derek tells his business story in a relatable but frank way.
Closing thought of the week
The examples I shared will require you to put in time outside of “normal working hours.” It feels unfair — you’re not paid to put in so much time! It takes away from time with your family, hobbies, and down time.
So what’s in it for you?
Each role you hold in your career is an asset. Your job is to grow the value of that asset so that it creates leverage to gain more value later. Just like buying a house gives you equity, which turns into cash when you sell a house, which turns into the ability to buy a nicer house. The same applies to your career.
When you invest heavily to improve your trajectory, you’re building future value. You might spend the next two years making the same salary you make right now. If you act like an employee who does what they’re told, you can make incremental improvements in your career trajectory by doing your current job better.
If you act like an owner, you can make step-level changes in your trajectory by investing in the asset that is your current role. As a result, you’ll position yourself for a new role that has as much as 2-3x the salary of your current role.