USA celebrating its independence day tomorrow . And coincidentally, I have been pinged by a lot of people with messages along the lines of “I can’t do anything independent where I work. What should I do?” type stuff. It is a question I have asked myself as an employee and as a leader/manager.
In primary school – I learned a poem in malayalam that roughly translates to “even if the bird is put in a fancy golden cage, its world doesn’t have any independence” . A lot of corporate peeps feel that way that they are stuck in a fancy cage. So what can be done about it ?
To begin with there are some basics – which might seem obvious and downright trivial.
1. Live within your means – or ideally, a little under your means.
2. Max out our at least match the employer contribution for your 401K if possible
3. Save a litte bit for a rainy day, invest wisely
4. Take care of your health (something I definitely need to work on)
Even if all you do is these 4 things – you should have a little bit of a safety net to take a few big swings when opportunity arises.
Then comes the core issue of employment.
Let me share a few principles from my own career
1. Always keep your skills sharp and up to date. Even in terrible economic slumps, my skills helped me switch jobs. It takes effort and passion to do this. If you treat your job as a way to earn a living and your heart is not in it – you will find it hard to keep your skills up to date. It is a choice you make – at a minimum, keep it sharp or develop a new skill to get a job where your heart is. For me – programming was where my heart was. So right out of Business school, I chose to code instead of trading equities.
2. Loyalty in a perfect world is a two way street – but alas, the world is not perfect. So while it is a great trait to be loyal at work place, don’t let it blind you as an employee or manager. End of the day – there is a business to be run, and the sooner things are put in that perspective – the easier it is to make and accept decisions.
Loyalty is a complex subject. When I joined the workforce – my role models were people like my father who spent decades at the same company, rising through the ranks. It was a serious problem if your CV looked like you were jumping every few years. Yet – I switched employers quite a bit in my early years, and it only helped me.
3. Network naturally. I can’t emphasize “naturally” enough. I am not a fan of aggressive networking – it turns me off. Make friends with your vendors, customers, peers etc just like how you make friends in social life. Help connect people where you can. And at some point – usually sooner than you think – you will have a useful network. Don’t mistake this for buying followers on social media. Also – don’t wait for shit to hit the fan before you start networking. Start when things are good. But if you have not done that – start today and not tomorrow. Quantity of relationships is not a factor – you just need a few who matter.
4. Always have a few options – plan B, C, D etc. You can’t always make plan B’s when bad things are happening. You need to have other options figured out when things are good. If your skills and network is kept alive and thriving, this should be a natural side effect. Don’t let loyalty stand in the way of having an alternate plan – you don’t need that plan B triggered if everything continues to be good.
And when it is time for the swan song
Despite all your best efforts and intentions – you might still have to get out of a job. Maybe you have a jerk as your boss, maybe you want to be your own boss, maybe you want more money – all are valid reasons. But there is a good way to leave – and some terrible ways.
1. Always leave gracefully. Burning bridges don’t get you far – it is really a small world and you should try as hard as you can to not piss anyone off. If your employer doesn’t deserve you – and you think it is their loss, just walk away smiling with a polite thank you. Don’t give in to the temptation of mass emailing everyone on your last day, yelling at your boss and stuff like that. It only shows you as immature. Walk away with grace – go home and scream your heart out (leave your family out of the yelling part if you can). I broke this rule once many years ago – shouted at my boss, emailed a terse resignation, and banged the door on his face for not promoting me. It was stupid of me to do that – and I repent it.
2. If you can’t stand your boss – try to get another one before you quit. If you are good at what you do, there is almost always a way to make it work in another team at the same company. Pardon me for saying this again – but this needs those skills and network to kick in. If you can’t find another boss – then don’t sit there and rot, actively use your plan B, C etc.
2. Leave on your terms whenever possible. It is almost always better than being fired. The only exception I can think of is when being fired comes with a nice farewell compensation package from the employer. But for this to happen – you needed to have those Plan B,C etc figured out when things were good.
3. Keep in touch with former colleagues, bosses and customers and help them whenever you can. The way I look at it is kind of in a “good karma” kind of way. Help as many people as you can – and some day, someone else will help you too when you don’t expect it. If you expect reciprocity before helping someone – in most cases it won’t happen, and you will end up bitter. I can assure you – in my life and career so far, this has only helped me. It has not once hurt me.
4. Plan and re-plan your career periodically. When I came out of business school – I thought I could retire at Thirty five. My goal was to get a job that lets me do some globe trotting, stay in fancy hotels and have a home with a pool and buy as many dogs as I needed. Those things were all accomplished by thirty five – but I also learned that none of those were worthwhile goals, and that I could not retire in that time frame. It also taught me to not trust any plan – planning is important, plan is not important. I replan my career every year or two. I am sure things won’t work the way I have laid it out even today – but I don’t feel bad about it any more.
So that is it – those are probably the principles that helped me gain some independence in my career. I hope some of them will help your career too. Please share any tips you have too.