Target Your Talent Where It’s Essential to the Mission
How to secure your relevancy when forces pressure organizational change
How do you remain relevant when environmental and political forces wreak havoc on an organization? Become indispensable.
From the beginning of time, environmental forces have pressured organizations - wars, inflation, pricing volatility, natural disasters, competition, and so on. Times will come when these forces drive organizations to take significant actions to survive or deliver on shareholder expectations. Headcount reductions are often the easy lever to pull and temporarily relieve pressure. Internal political forces also build pressure as people jockey for positions, control, and job security. The strength of your value proposition and political power within the organization will be tested and compared to others. It’s not personal; it’s competition operating in the wild. Your job as a strategist is to target your talent where it’s essential to the mission and develop scarcity where you are the only one who can do what you do. You want to be indispensable. Create this leverage – it’s your job and livelihood.
The Value Chain
In any company or organization, there are roles essential to delivering the value proposition to the customer. Without them, there is no product or service that creates value. These roles are part of the direct value chain. Assuming you have worked hard to develop valuable skills, the key to your success will be where you apply your talent. You must adopt a selective and strategic mindset to apply your time, talent, and experience where you are essential to the organization’s value-creation process. This will ultimately influence your compensation, power, and options.
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Throughout my career, from the early days as an engineer in the energy sector boiling oil, to Big Tech, to operating IT as a CIO, ranking talent, and hiring and firing to optimize the players on the team is part of the work culture. Talent decisions come down to who is critical and not who is necessarily liked. In every organization, there are “support” roles and roles that directly build and deliver the value proposition to the customer. Where your job sits in relation to the value chain will influence your power and security in times of headcount reductions or political maneuvering.
Be the only one who can do what you do, and make the fate of those who hire you so entwined with yours that they cannot possibly get rid of you.
The need for the work product of your hands and mind will change as external and internal forces pressure organizations to survive in a competitive market.
Your Value Proposition Strength is Dynamic
By adopting the mindset that our careers are products with value propositions, we can apply rational frameworks to assess the strength of our services and market needs. Where you allocate your talent will influence your capacity to remain relevant in times of change.
During my career at Chevron in the 90s, I transitioned from the ivory tower research and technology center to a major refinery where I led a team responsible for the reliability of the automation and advanced control systems that controlled the refinery production of gasoline and jet fuel. I had a unique combination of leadership and technical skills to deliver impact. My job was essential to the product, and I was not impacted by staffing changes when the pricing volatility of oil trimmed non-essential roles across the company.
My tenure as the CIO of Reef Technology ended in December 2022, when my value proposition was no longer critical to the organization’s priorities. My skills and experience as a builder and growing teams were not needed as the company contracted and reduced costs due to economic conditions. Months earlier, I had redesigned the IT organization into a Center of Excellence (CoE) model, creating a decentralized and collaborative structure that increased the accountability and visibility of the CoE leaders. This reduced the need for an executive leader. The company’s decision to eliminate the CIO role was not personal but economical. I had a great experience and learned new skills that expanded my value proposition for the next CIO role.
These two examples reinforce the need to evaluate your job's importance to the organization’s purpose and current priorities. The strength of your value proposition is dynamic, as external forces shape how an organization competes and allocates resources.
Your Value Proposition Compensation is Dynamic
Michael Porter’s Five Forces framework is a valuable lens to evaluate the dynamics and economics of competition. While this framework was designed to shape the competitive strategy for organizations and explain profitability - we can apply the same thinking to the talent marketplace and how these forces influence compensation. The core thesis of this framework is that strategic competition means choosing a path different than others.
Compete to be unique. It’s about uniqueness in the value you create and how you create it.
The mindset is for companies to pursue distinctive ways of competing aimed at serving different sets of needs and customers. It’s about finding and targeting the right audience for a company’s goods or services. You can apply this same strategic lens when deciding what company to work for and what role to maximize your value.
Understanding the implications of these five forces will shape where to allocate your talent to become indispensable and how to maximize your compensation.
Buyers - in this context, organizations are buyers of talent on the open market. Sectors with a concentration of fewer companies may have more power to dictate compensation. In contrast, many companies may compete heavily and bid up compensation to woo top talent, as seen in the tech sector. Organizations will have more power when “buying” undifferentiated jobs and less when they need unique skills in high demand or limited supply.
Suppliers - in this context, people are talent suppliers on the open market. People can use their negotiating leverage to command higher compensation under the following conditions: (1) the industry needs them more than they need the industry, (2) the switching costs to move to a different job is low, (3) the skills and experience of a person is highly differentiated and not easily reproduced. The implications are to evaluate industry trends that influence the demand for talent and double down on building experience and new skills to differentiate your value proposition.
Substitutes - the value proposition of your hands and mind are eliminated when the same basic need is met by an alternative solution, such as AI replacing human tasks or when work is transitioned to an outsourcing supplier. The implication is to avoid jobs where an organization’s switching costs to using substitutes are low. Remain vigilant to innovations or environmental trends that reduce or eliminate the need for your job. Compensation decreases when the force of substitutes increases.
New Entrants - the ease or friction by which people can enter the talent market for your job influences compensation. Compensation decreases if the “threat of entry” force increases (it’s easy for others to do your job). Seek jobs that have high barriers to entry that are defensible over time. For example, skills that can only be learned over long periods through experience. Continually learn to expand the depth and breadth of your value proposition, making it even harder for people to replicate.
Rivalry - we can assess the degree of rivalry from both organizational and people perspectives. When organizations compete intensely for top talent, this can bid up compensation. An ample supply of talent competing for fewer jobs can increase the intensity of rivalry and bid down compensation that a person is willing to accept.
A mental model as a strategist for your career is to assess the attractiveness of a job within a sector, build unique competencies that mitigate these forces, and allocate your talent where these forces are the weakest.
Need Trumps Love
You may be respected and loved by an organization and its leaders, but your relevancy is at risk if you are not critical to the value chain during times of change. Need trumps love.
Throughout my career, I have seen cases where people violated cultural norms or were lower performers but were retained over more talented people during headcount reductions because they had some unique knowledge or skill that could not be easily replaced.
Necessity rules the world. People rarely act unless compelled to. If you create no need for youself, then you will be done away with at the first opportunity.
The Daily Laws: 366 Meditations on Power, Seduction, Mastery, Strategy, and Human Nature by Robert Greene (February 21 – Create the Need for You)
Need also has a way of neutralizing political forces as people jockey for influence and expand their control.
Your primary task is to evaluate the market where unmet needs are uniquely satisfied by your value proposition that is not easily replicated, thereby limiting its supply and bidding up prices for your talent.
Decide Where and How to Compete
You are the product - it’s your responsibility to compete in a global market. Strategically target your talent within organizations to maximize your value proposition. Viewing talent as a dynamic marketplace of buyers and sellers can reduce the unrealistic expectations that organizations are responsible for your career and objectively assess the strength of your offering. It’s our choice to accept roles in specific sectors and companies and the forces that shape the realities of what is often a battle to secure our relevancy in a dynamic market.
Decide where and how to compete - it will influence wealth, health, and happiness.
1. Insert yourself as an essential link in the value chain.
Evaluate and prioritize business processes to tease out those critical to delivering customer value.
Choose work where your skill directly produces the product or service's value.
Avoid “supporting” roles – this limits your options, and your job will be cut at the first opportunity when things get tough.
Seek to control more steps in the value chain where you offer something unique.
2. Apply your talent where you are the only one who can do what you do.
Avoid work environments with a large pool of similar talent to draw upon.
Pick opportunities where your employer cannot easily find someone else with your particular skill.
Make your skill feel and appear indispensable – communicate your value often.
Delegate work that is a commodity or quickly done by others.
Avoid work that can be easily outsourced.
Avoid a role that can be easily reallocated to realize a lower cost or higher value.
Resist taking on work that is not your responsibility to ensure focus on your core value proposition unless it creates a unique dependency on you.
3. Create a dynamic of dependence.
Seek roles at the center of the collaboration network whereby removing you creates disruption and inefficiency.
Build strong relationships with decision-makers.
Create a strong need for your skills and service.
Choose work assignments that create a unique dependence on you.
Choose to work with people with a higher need for you than you have for them.
4. Test and strengthen your value proposition.
Evaluate the quality and impact of your work on value-generating processes.
Run a mock situation where you were either fired or let go – assess how easy or difficult it will be for core operations to deliver value.
Seek feedback from leaders and colleagues to improve your work product – see it as a gift.
Evaluate your profile against the top experts in your craft to identify competencies you must strengthen.
Commit to continuous learning to deepen and expand your core value proposition and uniqueness.
Read the news and journals to gain insight into trends and events that shape the market you work in or target markets
5. Assess and influence the political forces.
Evaluate the concentrations of political power within an organization.
Develop relationships with influential people to be of value to them, assess political dynamics, and derive insights into organizational change.
Make the impact of your work known to key stakeholders with a focus on business impact, not your ego.
Experiment With This
Organizations will value your expertise differently depending on the industry and economics of the value proposition. You want a role critical to delivering value, not a “support” role. If the person or company that employs my services had to reduce costs, how likely would they cut my position? How can I expand my skillset to control more steps in the value chain?
If your role is easily dispensible or you can be replaced quickly, consider transitioning elsewhere in the company to become more essential. What skills do I need to develop that are more valuable and unique to become critical to the company? Research and read the news to learn about the emerging talents that will become more essential soon.
Everybody is replaceable in their work, so planning for the worst and hoping for the best is a smart strategy. How easy or difficult will it be to find my next job? What should I start doing now to manage that risk and take action?
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