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By Nick Corcodilos

In the book, Ask The Headhunter, I devote a lot of ink to explaining how you can win a new job by demonstrating to the employer that you are a one-person profit center. In fact, a profit-based approach to job hunting is easily translated into a profit-based strategy for keeping the job you have or changing jobs in your own company. I tried to spread the word about this idea in the chapter titled, "Honesty":

"If you spend most of your time thinking about finding your next job, how much of your time are you spending making your current job the right job? You may find that you do not need a new job if you give your current job an honest chance. Apply "The Four Questions" to your job. If you think you can do more and should be paid for it, then interview with your own company for a raise, or for a better position."

More jobs =/= job security.
When the economy is good, people feel pretty secure. There are lots of jobs to be had. When the economy goes south, they worry. Jobs are dear. But neither attitude is healthy, no matter what's going on in the economy.

Heavy demand for workers doesn't make your job safer. In fact, a strong economy can put you at greater risk. When good sales reps, technical people, administrators, managers, engineers (and all manner of workers) realize it's more of a "seller's market" out there, they're more likely to go job shopping. When they do, it becomes easier for your employer to compare you to your competition -- and to make the smart choice.

Conversely, a weak economy doesn't justify running scared. Good companies don't go out of business and fire everyone. They hunker down, and they take a careful look at who's doing a good job and who's not.

American business seem to re-learn something important every time the economy goes south. All those downsizings don't just result in layoffs and leaner companies. They also result in culling. Companies take the opportunity to get rid of weak, unprofitable workers. The evolutionary result of repeated downsizings seems to be that businesses are getting smarter. In both good and bad times, companies have started paying more attention to how each of their operations contributes to the bottom line. When something (or someone) is not contributing, it's time to cut, and the chainsaw is ruthless.

If you learn how to leverage this corporate preoccupation with profitability, you can start calling some of your own career shots in the company you work for now.

Have you invested wisely?
The first thing to ask yourself about your current job is whether you threw in with a successful business. The second question you must address is whether you're helping make it successful.

Start by researching the success of your project, your department and your company. Don't sit like a bump on a log in team meetings, waiting for the financial part to be over so you can talk about your little slice of the project. Get to know the financial issues, just as you would when you invest your money in a stock.

Ask questions. Make sure you understand where your project fits in with the department's goals and objectives. Where does your product (or service, or work) fit into the company's long-term strategy? Will there be a good payoff to the company if you succeed?

Talk with your boss. Talk with people in other departments, including finance, sales, engineering, manufacturing and production. These people have perspectives and knowledge that will affect your career. An added bonus is that as you become more visible to these folks, you will establish yourself as a team member with a taste for the bigger issues. And that's what makes for good promotions. It also makes for a broader base of allies if cuts come.

In your wanderings, remember to diplomatically inquire how others assess your contribution to the enterprise. It's easy to develop an inaccurate picture of where you fit. Whether the news is good or bad, you need to know so you can act appropriately.

Don't end your cogitating there. Your company might think everything's peachy. What does the industry think? How does your customer base (present and potential) regard your product? Lots of factors affect your success. If you don't understand them, you can't possibly make a good decision about how to invest your efforts (and your career).

As long as you come up with positive conclusions, it's time to re-apply for your own job to make sure you keep it. (This is also a good way to apply for a new job with your own company, before the competition even gets in the door.)

Start counting the beans.
Your employer may not have communicated this to you -- in fact, he may not even understand it himself yet -- but your future depends on what you can kick into the business. That is, your work has to add something to the product or service you produce. This brings us to something the bean counters sometimes can't get their hands around (and this is why your boss seems confused sometimes): What do you cost your company? If you don't add more than you cost, start looking over your shoulder. The next job candidate your boss interviews could be gaining on you.

I'm not trying to strike paranoia into your heart. There are issues beyond hard dollars that affect whether you will be successful at your job. But if you ignore the question of where you tip the profitability scales, you're doing your employer a disservice. You're also failing yourself professionally, because the term "dollars" in the profitability equation is easily re-cast as "value". If you're not adding dollars or value to the business, your own professional value will decline no matter who employs you.

You can bet that someone upstairs is going to ask your boss to do this analysis at some point, especially if a downsizing or a merger is in the cards. So, don't wait for him to come to you with a finance-department printout in one hand and a calculator in the other. Start figuring out your part in the profitability equation, and go explain it to him.

Figuring out what you really cost won't be easy, depending on how your company handles financial information. You might be able to get some data from your boss (a department budget or plan would be ideal), or you might pick it up from new friends in the accounting or finance department. If your company is public, get your hands on the corporate 10-k report (available from the investor-relations department). Your calculations will lead to rough results, but something is better than nothing. If you can manage to do a profitability analysis on your entire department or project, you can probably come up with a rough estimate of where you fit into the equation by doing some simple math.

Present your findings to your boss or some other manager you trust; ask his or her reaction. "I just want to make sure I'm producing profitable work for the company. If I'm not, I want to make it more profitable. Do you think I've developed an accurate picture of what I cost the company and what I produce?" Don't make this a challenge; demonstrate your genuine interest in where your work fits. But don't be surprised when the manager's eyes bug out. Few employees ever show concern for whether their work is paying off to the employer.

Get this far, and you're on your way to defending your job in competitive times, or you're a prime candidate for that new job you want.

Buy a fire extinguisher now.
I remember getting a department-by-department cost analysis from the finance manager at my company. On it was a line marked Miscellaneous. The figure was three times the size of all the other cost items put together. "What's this?" I asked, like an idiot. "That's a cost figure we had to allocate to your department," he said. "It's all other undefined costs incurred by the company, divided by the number of departments. We tried to do it fairly. You were charged just as much as every other department." There went my department's profit. Fire! Fire! Dilbert, save me!

The next time I met with my boss, I chopped that number out of my own profitability analysis and told him I'd be willing to eat it if someone could defend it. He gave an exasperated sigh and told me not to worry about it; my department's profitability was clear. "Thanks for being responsible enough to do your own analysis," he said. When cuts came, my team was spared. So was I.

Every corporate financial plan is a patchwork of bad wiring; a continuing concatenation of often discontinuous numbers developed by different generations of financial staffs. That is, the plan evolves over time and some of the assumptions are so old that they're taken for granted -- but the numbers don't always add up. They add up enough to satisfy the auditors and the board of directors, but when time comes to cut projects, the relatively minuscule flaws in those numbers can kill you. (Sorry to tell you, but your budget is probably minuscule relative to the bigger picture.) Unravel the wires and find the short circuits, and you'll see why someone upstairs might thoughtlessly conclude that you're expendable. Ignore them, and you could wake up fried.

Protect yourself. Yeah, the numbers may be hard to come by. But, face it, your job is no longer just to produce a product. It's to make sure the rest of the company knows you're doing it profitably.

Start looking for new jobs in your own backyard.
If your team and project are doing well, your next job could be more of the same project. If you want more -- or new -- responsibility, though, you've got to go after it by demonstrating a greater level of involvement than the company expects. Many are the times I've heard people complain that someone else got the promotion they thought they deserved. Sometimes this happens because another candidate demonstrated more initiative. Don't be left wondering what happened. It's simple, really. If you want more, do more.

Whether you want to stay on your project or move to another part of the organization, you need to know what's cooking throughout the company. Hiding in your office or cubicle will keep you hidden when some manager goes looking for talent. I call this strategy for "internal" job hunting JHBWA -- Job Hunting By Wandering Around. Job hunters on the street would kill to be able to walk down your company's hallways and chat with other staffers and managers. That's the best place to find interviews for new jobs. (How do you think a headhunter finds juicy new assignments? I've spent a lot of time wandering around the halls of my client companies.) Stick your head in the appropriate doors and say "hello". Inquire about the progress of some project you've heard about. Ask to sit in on the department's "bag lunch". Approach a manager you want to work for and offer your special skills on a volunteer basis, to help her get through a particularly busy time.

Read your industry's trade magazines, but don't forget the general business press. Sometimes the internal secrets are most easily discovered in the media. What do the media predict for your industry? What's your company likely to get involved in next? Who's in charge of other hot projects? What's the next phase of the project you are working on?

Once you get the inside scoop, don't just ship your resume to some manager. Study. Think. Talk to people who know more about the work than you do. Strategize. Put together your idea of a business plan for the job you want. When you go on an interview with a new company, you go fully prepared; why do any less for an internal opportunity? Be ready to do a presentation.

Don't wait for jobs to be posted. By then, your competition will be waiting in line. And it's a shame, because you could be better prepared than any of them. Unless, of course, they read Ask The Headhunter, too.

Try the preemptive, in-your-face performance review.
Most employees dread performance reviews, until they realize their boss hasn't reviewed them in well over a year. Then they demand one. I've seen review delays in company after company. Managers put off reviews because the paperwork is just nonsense. Some review forms that come out of human resources departments look like parlor games, and the jargon is so thick it can be shaped to mean anything. Far more common today is the manager who hands the forms to the employee and says, "Here, fill these out. I want you to review yourself. When you're done with the forms, we'll get together and talk about them."

But, why wait? Review yourself before your boss brings it up. Strike preemptively. But do it without the standard forms. Here's a self-review a boss once asked me to do. He asked me to give him a list of:

  1. Three specific things I had done in the past year that increased our company's profitability; why those things were profitable; and a dollar estimate of what each item netted the company.    
  2. Three things I did to decrease company costs in the past year; how the cost reductions worked; and a dollar estimate of the savings.    
  3. Three things I wanted to accomplish next year, and how much they would net the company.

This guy had his head screwed on straight. I found myself wishing I had thought of this myself. Notice that although the profitability equation has two main components -- revenue and cost -- he never asked about revenue, even though I was managing a sales organization. Smart guy. Lots of sales people in the company were generating huge revenues -- but at negative profits. What mattered to this manager (he was the company president) was the bottom line: profit.

Do this analysis for yourself. Use the results not just to review yourself, but to "re-apply" for your own job and to prove your value when asking for a raise. Do it proactively: have a sit-down with your boss to discuss your work and your contribution -- before his boss makes him come to you. Maybe you're just protecting your turf. Maybe you're angling for more turf. Either way, the outcome should be that you have positioned yourself for the future. (This is also a powerful tool to use when presenting yourself to another department for a new job.)

Nothing proves your value like a clear picture of what you cost and what you produce. And no one is more valuable to a company than a worker who shows he's managing his job the way the company is trying to manage itself: profitably.

The successful job search starts at home.
As departments within companies have become profit centers, individual jobs are coming to be viewed as profit centers, too. It's your choice as to whether you put a stake in the ground and face this challenge where you are now, or in your next company. Remember that you already have a lot invested in your job and in your employer. But regardless of what you decide, you'd better believe this: wherever you are working, your job will be a profit center, and your future will depend on whether you run it like a healthy business.

So, as you plan the next steps in your career, take a look at your current (or next) job as a business -- a profit-making business. How can you run it in a way that produces more than it costs? How can you make it provide you and your employer with the rewards it should? If your job is in jeopardy, this bigger perspective could save it. The answers to these questions are also at the heart of any effort to pursue a raise or a promotion, or a new job -- because your future depends on your ability to figure out and communicate the value you bring to your work.

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