How much do you know about the company for which you work? How about your company’s market? Do you know the names or professional backgrounds of the members of the board of directors? Why should you care? The truth is, knowing all you can know — about your company, your market, your work and the interests of those around you — directly effects the success of your career. Workers who are insular and care only about the day-to-day tasks they must face will find themselves blindsided by circumstances that might have been foreseen. Your job and your career do not exist in a vacuum. Learn as much as you can about all aspects of your company and you can and will make better decisions about everything.
The State of the Company
When I was working for a large corporation, I sometimes joked that “workers should never invest in their own company. The employees are always the last to know about anything.” While I might have been joking there was a deep kernel of truth in it. I would often read about layoffs, management changes and cancelled projects in the newspaper before I would hear anything internally. Companies want to keep bad news quiet, especially inside the company, so you have to dig for the information you need. There are several ways to accomplish this.
First, make use of all the news sources at your disposal. Automated news and web searches, like Google Alerts, can often turn up information you might never have heard about otherwise. If your company is publicly traded, subscribe to the news feed for its stock ticker symbol. You might also want to watch the company’s stock price, even if you aren’t an investor. Dramatic stock price changes can point to problems in the company or rumors of potential mergers, even before news stories appear. You would probably monitor the price if you were an investor. Doesn’t the investment of time in your career dictate the same due diligence?
Next, do some research to see how your salary, and the salary of other employees, relates to geographic, national and international pay rates? While I can imagine managers and executives screaming in pain when they read this, I am a firm believer that everyone’s salary should be known to those around them. I know, you can find stories about ruined worker morale and increased pay scales, but as a worker, if you do not have some idea of the going rate for your position, both inside and outside the company, you have no ability to negotiate a valid salary. When salary rates are unknown, the hiring company holds all the power. You owe it to yourself to be armed with the best information possible.
One great way to gain insight on salary and other work-related issues to to regularly socialize with your peers in the community. Here in Los Angeles, a local group has formed around the concept of BarCamp. These are ad-hoc, unconferences held all over the world. You might even find one in your own town. As part of our local group, we regularly hold Geek Dinners, where we can come together for food and discussion. You never know what information you might discover while attending one of these meetings. Recently, I was able to gain deeper insights into some technical issues at a local web hosting company that I might never have discovered without meeting this person face-to-face. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this resource in enhancing your career decisions.
Along with information about your company, you should also seek out in-depth information on yourself. If you don’t have some idea where you stand, professionally and financially, you can make uninformed decisions that can harm you later. One quick calculation to make is to figure out your gross hourly rate. People who work on salary are often surprised when they calculate this number. First, calculate it based on a “normal” 40-hour week. Then calculate your gross hourly rate based on the number of hours you actually work. If your company has a lot of mandatory overtime and other emergency-driven hours, you might find your hourly salary on the pace of someone who works at the local convenience store. Finally, while it can be difficult to pin down exactly, try to divine what your net hourly salary might be when you consider expenses such as taxes and unemployment and health care co-payments. I can guarantee you, this exercise will be a true “eye opener”.
Next, take a good look at your savings, both current and money that you may have tied up in retirement plans, such as IRAs and 401k plans. You might scoff at this if you are in your 20’s, but you should be considering your retirement nest egg from the moment you start your first job. The earlier you start saving for retirement, the better off you will be. Don’t let this opportunity slip away. For myself, I never really plan on “retiring” in the traditional sense. As I look towards the future, I will always want to be doing some sort of work, even into my 90’s. What my retirement plan will provide me, though, is the freedom to work on projects I find important, rather than worrying about supporting my day-to-day living expenses.
Finally, get to know your own wants and desires. Pick your jobs, do not let them pick you. Direct your career where you want it to go, do not let others push in you into a career you do not enjoy. The more information you have about your employer, and about yourself, the better decisions you will make, day-to-day and year-to-year. A great career is not simply about the choices you make today, but the choices you make over a lifetime.