You Work In The Business Of One

I like to coach people about their careers. It usually starts with a simple complaint about not getting the promotion they deserve or not seeing where their career is heading. They are stuck in their role for years and don’t see a way out. Their boss doesn’t seem to care, and the human resources department listens and doesn’t do anything. They feel like the only way out is to jump ship and go to another company.

So they jump. And it starts all over again. They were promised interesting work but ended up with a routine job that doesn’t excite them. They don’t see how their work makes a difference in the world. They keep complaining about how life is unfair and how their boss doesn’t do their job to help them to the next promotion. And they are right. Life is not fair, and their boss’s job is not to promote them.

You are responsible for your career

You are responsible for your career. It is not the job of your boss, the human resources department, or your coworkers to help you. Sometimes they do help, but you can’t rely on them. You, and only you, are responsible for your own fortune, career, and impact on the world. You may be freelance, work for a small start-up, or a big corporation, but in the end, when it comes to your career, you work only for yourself. You are in the business of one.

“You, and only you, are responsible for your career and impact on the world. You work only for yourself. You are in the business of one.”

This may sound like common sense to some and like a crazy notion to others. The view of the career depends on your temperament, your cultural background, and the experience you have. Some people have a better starting position than others. Those from underrepresented groups need to fight significant headwinds. It is not fair. But it is the reality we live in.

Since I was a child, I have been taught that if you do a good job, others will notice. Just focus on the work, and fortunes will come. This was a similar mentality in my first real job in a corporate environment. Back then, I worked for a big multinational corporation with headquarters in Germany. Because of the company culture and my cultural background, I believed that my boss was responsible for my career. I focused on doing great work and expected my boss to recognize and reward it. And guess what. It worked! My boss indeed recognized the work and promoted me. Why? Because he came from a similar educational and cultural background, he saw it as his job to seek good performers on his team and give them the recognition and rewards they deserved. He was, without a doubt, one of the best managers I had ever met.

But in some companies and cultures, the mentality is very different. It is expected that you ask for what you deserve. Your boss keeps reminding you about the need to “be visible” and promote your work. A bit of personal marketing towards the boss and the other people in headquarters never hurts. In some cultures, it is not enough to do a good job. You need to promote it too. What’s the point of doing great work if no one knows about it?

You need to ask for what you want

A couple of years back, I coached a person born in Asia who moved to the USA. Let’s call him Peter. He came from an environment that didn’t encourage asking for a promotion, as it would be considered a bit disloyal. He was afraid to be seen as someone more interested in his own needs than the needs of the team and the company. He was worried that his boss would believe that a fancy title was more important to him than doing a good job.

Now he worked in a culture where you were expected to ask for what you want. He could do the best work in the world, but if he never asked for a promotion, he may never get it, as the boss assumed he was happy. Why change something that seems to be working? Peter assumed that his manager probably didn’t believe he was particularly good since he wasn’t promoted. So even though he liked the job, he eventually got frustrated with the lack of career progress and was ready to leave. All that was necessary was to have the conversation and remove the assumptions.

These experiences taught me a valuable lesson. Yes, I still believe that recognizing and rewarding great work is the manager’s job. I also believe that it is our responsibility as individuals who own their careers to remind the boss what a great job we are doing and that we expect to be rewarded accordingly. It is our responsibility to ask for what we need and want. We may not always get it, but we need to make it clear what we expect.

Why you and not someone else

When asking for what you want and need, the tricky part is understanding what value you bring to the company. If you adopt the mentality that you are in a business of one and want to manage your career as a business relationship between you and the company, you need to sell your services. Have you ever thought about these questions?

  • What value do you bring to the table?
  • What problem do you solve or can you solve for the company?
  • Why should someone pay for your service?
  • What is your competitive advantage over others?

If you answer these questions, you better understand what role to apply for and what compensation you can realistically ask for.

“We all have blind spots, and only by getting feedback from someone who knows us can we calibrate our self-perception and be realistic in our expectations.”

Sometimes you have the answers, but you also lack the frame of reference, so you undervalue or overvalue your uniqueness and the need for the service you can provide. We all have blind spots, and only by getting feedback from someone who knows us can we calibrate our self-perception and be realistic.

This is especially true for people who already have some significant success behind them. Your ego might be too big, and your self-perception is not aligned with how others and the market are seeing you. You often need to take a step back, settle for a lower-level position, and then take two steps forward to get to the subsequent success. If your ego is too big and you believe that no one understands your brilliance, you can be without a job for a long time. You failed to understand the business-to-business relationship of the market. You are selling an overpriced service that not many companies are willing to buy. You need to either change the go-to-market strategy or the product, meaning yourself. In either case, you need to look deep into who you are, learn new skills, and adjust your expectations.

Act as a consultant

Once you are clear on what you know and can do, you need to beat the competition. In this case, the other candidates that are applying for the same job.

Imagine you are a freelance consultant brought in to solve a problem. The best strategy is to ask the right questions, find the hiring manager’s pain points, and then show them how you can solve those problems and why you are uniquely qualified to do so. By doing this, you can turn an interview focused on what skills you have into a conversation about what problems the company is trying to solve.

During that conversation, you can show what you have done in the area, provide insights demonstrating your knowledge, and help you empathize and bond with the hiring manager. The feeling you want to elicit is, “Yep, this person knows what I’m talking about. He or she has been there and can help us solve it.” Sold. It is utterly irrelevant that someone might have a fancier resume, better technical skills that might be largely irrelevant, or speak ten languages they will never use on the job. The conversation is about what matters, and all the fluff disappears. It is a great antidote to hiring managers having a list of twenty requirements, going through them individually, and checking boxes.

“During an interview, refuse to play the role of a child being questioned by a teacher. You are two adults who talk about how to solve a business problem.”

Let me give you an example from one of the interviews I went through years ago, after which I got an offer, even though I didn’t join the company. The interview was for a role in a medium-sized international company with significant expansion plans. The CEO was looking for someone to spearhead that expansion. I’m paraphrasing here the conversation we had.

  • Hiring manager: “I see in your CV that you spent some time in the Philippines. Can you tell me more about it?”
  • Me: “It was in 2013 when the management decided that we needed to build a strategic office focused on customer-facing roles that could scale with our fast growth. Since I had already built one office focused on R&D, I was an obvious candidate to replicate the success. I spent a year in Manila getting us the facility and, together with peers from HQ, hiring the first teams and setting up the necessary processes. Do I understand it right that you are in a similar situation?”
  • Hiring manager: “Yes, we are looking at ways how to scale while keeping the costs manageable.”
  • Me: “That is a challenging thing to do. Based on what I know about your company, it feels like your focus is on Europe. Am I correct? Have you already looked at some specific locations?”
  • Hiring manager: “Yes, you are right. We already did a bit of research and felt that Central and Eastern Europe might be viable locations.”
  • Me: “Agreed. Even though you may probably achieve lower costs in some countries in Asia, it would also add unnecessary complexity to your business which is not needed at this stage.”

The rest of the interview went pretty much along the same lines when we talked about the company and its problems, and I sprinkled in my thoughts on the ideal next steps. After the interview, I got feedback that the hiring manager was impressed with my knowledge and experience. Funny. If you read carefully, he asked me only one question! It worked because I refused to play the role of a child being questioned by a teacher. I changed the rules and moved the conversation to an equal level. We were two adults who talked about how to solve a business problem. I already acted as if I was hired and just had a constructive problem-solving discussion with my peer. Sold.

Putting it all together

Next time you go to an interview, try to look at it from the perspective of two adults with equal rights and needs who are talking business. The past doesn’t matter. What you did in your previous jobs is irrelevant by itself. What matters is whether you can use the lessons learned to solve the hiring manager’s problem. If you keep the conversation focused on the needs of your potential employer, you are halfway there. And the added benefit is that you will learn a lot about the company and can then make an educated decision about whether to join or not.

And yes, this type of conversation may not be viable for entry-level positions, but the more seniority you get, the easier it becomes. Obviously, the hiring manager needs to play along. If they are set in their ways, there is often not much you can do about it. However, why not at least try?

Photo: FotografieLink /

This article is adapted from my book Quiet Success: The Introvert’s Guide To A Successful Career. If you enjoyed it, get a copy today!

Quiet Success by Tomas Kucera

Categories: Career

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