The company you work for is selfish, and maybe that’s okay. Even if it doesn’t sound okay, wrapping your mind around this concept will free you from loads of frustration and let you start positioning yourself to benefit from this selfishness. In this article I will introduce a concept you can use to make strategic moves that will get you a more rewarding career. Building a career that gives a healthy mix of time, money and freedom is directly linked to the role you play in generating returns for shareholders. Work on the money line.
Why Do Companies Exist?
Let’s start here. Contrary to strongly held beliefs among many employees, a company’s main goal is to generate returns (money and value) for shareholders or owners. Forget the pretty press releases and philanthropic moves. This is all part of business, but behind the research, development, hiring, training programs, donations and claims to making the world a better place is one singular focus: generate money. Am I saying these benevolent actions are all fake? Absolutely not, but none of them are sustainable if the company isn’t able to turn a profit or find willing investors to constantly pump more funds into the business. And yes, those investors will be looking for more than just a dollar for dollar refund eventually.
Notice that I haven’t mentioned anything yet about supporting your dreams, financial goals, helping you build a career, education or general need to feel like you matter in life. That’s because to the company, helping you with these things is a means to the end mentioned above. Companies may be willing to invest in you and offer these rewards, insomuch as that investment better equips you to generate more money for the shareholders. I’m not here to debate whether that’s fair, but accepting that reality is step one to making sure you get what you want in the process.
The Money Line
In each company there is a proverbial main road or assembly line where most of the activities that generate money take place. Other people and activities happening in the company are important, but still peripheral to the crucial matters that get to walk the money line. They are supporting the central goal from a distance. While activities outside the money line are important to the overall plot, like most things in life, supporting players are paid less than leading stars. It’s important to understand that this disparity is not a reflection on your value as a person. It’s strictly business and numbers here.
Life on the money line comes with more prestige, attention, and financial rewards, but there is also more pressure to perform and increased scrutiny around your work. You have to decide how bad you want it and be willing to take the glory and heat of the spotlight. Many young professionals arrive on jobs with shiny degrees from fancy schools, thinking that these badges of honour should automatically grant them access to careers that satisfy their hopes and dreams. Your degree is only worth how much shareholder value you can produce now, and a discounted amount for what you may be able to contribute later, if you even stay long enough to see later.
Finding the Money Line
Now that we’ve established that the company isn’t in the business of you, at least not directly, let’s think about what it is actually doing. Let’s follow the money so to speak. If it’s a public company or if you have access as an insider, read through the financial statements, especially the accompanying notes. Boring maybe, but doing the things that other people skip gives you the advantage. Financial statement analysis is a longer conversation, but here is a shortcut for this exercise. Within the financial statements or in a more stylish publication called the annual report, there is usually a message from the CEO and management’s discussion of what they think matters to shareholders. Look at what they celebrate and what they are trying to explain away. These are all cues to what parts of the business matter most.
A simpler exercise is looking at the main players who seem to be on the money line. What’s their role? What team are they leading? Offer to take someone for coffee or lunch because you want to learn more about how they built such a great career. People love talking about themselves.
When news from analysts, internal press releases or other sources gets released about the company, what points do they discuss? Follow the leading executives. A great sources of key information is found when executives get interviewed on podcasts or other media. Pay attention to the themes and responses to pointed questions about what the company is doing now, and especially what it plans to do next! Also have a look at what drives the competitors. If your company makes an adjustment based on activity from another organisation in your industry, that business area might be on the money line.
Finally, have a common sense look at the business. If the company makes and sells phones, the money line follows the key steps involved in designing, producing, marketing and selling those phones to business or individual clients.
Joining the Money Line
We have a few options for joining the money line. One is passive waiting, where we continue working our current position business as usual with the hope that someone notices our desire for more and invites us to the party. I can tell you now in a competitive environment where there is an aggressive line to join the actual money line, this is a slow path to success. Another path is gradual progress. In this option we take a measured approach, slowly learn the organisation, and take on various tasks. Some of these tasks may or may not inch us closer to the money line.
Switch and jump is a common practice where you see an opportunity to move closer to the money line by joining another team or sometimes a different company. At times it’s hard for people in your current environment to see you as a potential major player because of familiarity. They have grown accustomed to you occupying this space only, and it’s a stretch to imagine you doing more and dare I say, getting paid more. There may also be some structural barriers. If you’re in a small organisation that isn’t interested in growing, or working for leaders who intend to die in their current office rather than train a replacement so they can move on to bigger things, there might simply be limited space on the money line.
The final option is strategic positioning. With the money line in mind, look carefully at what makes it tick. Consider your current skills and what skills you are willing to invest serious time, effort and even money into mastering over the next 2-3 years. Where can your current and soon to be mastered skills be used to more directly generate shareholder value on the money line? Start building relationships with the active players. Seek out mentors and peers who can give you an honest appraisal of your skill set. As Michael Burt said, you want to make sure your self-appraisal matches your market value. Depending on how deep you’re trying to go, success may require a sponsor who can present or endorse your application with the insiders.
Note that this sponsor, does not have to be a mentor. Sponsors are usually people so far ahead of you that your progress presents no immediate threat to their position. It may also be someone that sees the value you can add to the overall pot, which may indirectly increase the gains available for them as well. Start actively taking on projects or tasks that help you build a narrative for how you can contribute to the money line, and learn how to articulate this with authority and humility. Finally, when the opportunity appears or you create it, walk into that space, perform and own it.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that companies focus on generating money. In capitalism at least, this pursuit also breeds innovation, solutions and creates job opportunities for many people who are not in a position to lead their own business. It creates spaces where bright minds can come together and access resources that may be inaccessible to individuals. It might be big or small, but there is a river of money running through your company. You can make the right moves and take your spot on the money line.
I may have more to say on this, but we’ll let your feedback and questions shape part two.
Question: What do you think is stopping you from getting the career and rewards you desire?
Comment below or on twitter.
Dalan Vanterpool | Twitter: @dalanv
Dalan is a private banker and host of Focus The Fire podcast (focusthefire.com) sharing essential career advice for ambitious young professionals.
Read Part 2: Making Space on the line
In part 2 we explore the money line from the company or management perspective. How can you make space on the line so more team members feel compelled to stay, perform and produce excellent work?