IT Employment

How to use your headcount for job security

Do you ever feel like your job is at risk? John M McKee provides insight into a career tactic he saw used successfully for years by an individual who kept his job while others were let go. Is it for everyone? No -- but it's a good one to know.

Here's a simple tactic which anyone can use to keep a job longer than they deserve -- regardless of how poor their job performance is.

Years ago I worked with a guy who had the reputation for "surviving" in an industry where the average career life expectancy is particularly short. He was a leader in a large retail group, responsible for overseeing all their companies' advertising and marketing. He oversaw probably the biggest expense line in the entire retail industry at the time. The corporation was having a hard time due to a tough economy, which was making it hard to move anything that wasn't absolutely necessary or cheap. ("Say inexpensive - nobody wants something that's cheap. But everyone wants a deal nowadays," I was admonished.)

It seemed to me he was good at what he did; but as everyone knows, in a tough economy being "good" isn't always "good enough" to keep your job.

Everywhere across the country retailers were in trouble. Heads were rolling. As we worked together it was clear that within his company there was little tolerance for failure: One person after another was being let go or moved aside. In the advertising field, agencies were going bust due to a lack of clients or reduced spending; consequently, many well-known executives were looking for work anywhere they could land on their feet. Clearly, competition existed for his job as well; or at least that's how it seemed to me.

But yet, during this tumultuous time this executive remained cool and seemed totally unconcerned about his job. All evidence to the contrary, here was one guy who gave no hint that he was in danger despite the failing sales and profit reports every quarter. His boss was switched out and a new one arrived. His peers left the scene one by one. But he remained. And he was calm.

What was the reason behind his continued career success? And could other execs in a tight situation learn from him?

The answer is pretty simple. Whether or not you would use it to hold onto a job is a personal decision, of course  -- and I'm not advocating here. But knowing about it just might be good for your own career success.

The answer to his longevity, in his opinion, was that he had no headcount. Unlike most organizations doing similar work and other similar sized companies, which had many department heads under that entire structure, he had none. He used - almost entirely -- outsourced advertising/marketing people and agencies. And these individuals and organizations had become very loyal to him over the years. He always got the best pricing, the most creative work, and they never went to anyone else in his company for direction or information. They knew that their success was, to a very real extent, dependent on keeping him satisfied.

His boss, the corporation's CEO, didn't know any of these individuals. In fact, he barely even knew the companies each of them ran as they serviced the needs of the entire retail conglomerate. So, even if the CEO had wanted to replace this executive, he couldn't have done it easily without being very disruptive to the day-to-day operations of the whole entity. Additionally, it could take a very long time to get someone up to speed if the CEO did replace him.

And that's the secret: No successor? No replacement! No internal organization? No corporate memory about "how to do things around here'! Nobody could simply step into his job and keep the machine running without a lot of lead-time and, most likely, pain for the entire corporation.

Given the times, and the number of outsourcers across all industries, this approach probably has a good opportunity to work for many readers. Whether or not you'd choose to use such a Machiavellian approach is up to you.

john

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

15 comments
starryknight
starryknight

Reminds me of the programmers of yore who would purposely write programs with such convoluted and impossible to understand code that only they could maintain it. It's an old trick, but not much value really. I doubt it worked for many anyway. I know of companies that made the edict that anytime an individual is found to be "indispensible" - they are immediately "let go". The reasoning is that it's better to force a solution fast and hard and get it over with - plus they don't want to employ anyone who would cause the organization to get into that position.

Bizzo
Bizzo

A few years ago, I worked in a small department, it was (and still is) part of a massive company who regularly had headcount reductions, every couple of months maybe at the time. But for some reason, our department never had forced redundancies. We never could work out why until we asked our manager. Apparently, every time someone left our group he didn't fill the position unless it was really necessary, and so never advertised nor released these "empty" positions, so at any one time we had 2 or 3 vacancies in the group. They obviously got added to the headcount of the department, but were no cost as they were never filled. Whenever the redundcancies came up and he had to lose one of the headcount, he just removed a vacancy, and so all his staff were still safe. It worked very well for quite a few years, until they halved the group.

Tink!
Tink!

There definitely is no absolute lock-tight method of keeping a job. Even with monopolizing and hoarding vital information, you can still be released if the uppers tire of you. When I started here, no one here really knew much of anything about their systems. They had outsourced it to a guy who set up everything and then left without giving them any info on the setup. (I got the gist that it wasn't a happy parting.) Now that I handle all the tech stuff here, I still hold monopoly on the info, but only because there's no one here to teach. No one wants to or deems it necessary to learn. However, the CEO does have access to a list of the admin passwords.

csyst
csyst

regardless - this is stupid advice - your only job security these days is your ability to find another job

don.gulledge
don.gulledge

Having had a varied career in many places, I've seen it all when it comes to knowledge hording and territorial defenses just to protect one's job. I've seen this over and over in my career and even though I've hated it, especially when I'm trying to automate a function where the person doesn't want to give up the information. They make you code around in circles and for what? Because they think that if the computer can do it, they won't be needed any longer. Well, I'm old now and based upon my years I've concluded that these folks may have been right. There's no position, nowhere where your completely safe except for maybe castro. Everyone is replacable. I've saw while in the military guys who got this feeling they were to important to replace only to get replaced. Yes, the system crumbles for a time, but like a system it always seems to get by and make due. I never like these kinds of people. But, now that I'm more in their shoes I can see their side much clearer. Will I do it myself, no but I'm not going out of my way to help the other side either. I had a boss that directed me to write up a document detailing everything in my programs as to what the business rules were, the way I built them, and anything else needed in case I left. Yeah, right. Saw that one coming. I told him, it's in the code. If I leave, you'll have to hire someone that can code to take my place. Truth is he really wanted to get rid of me and give the job to one of his buddies. But, the only way it could happen is if I handed him an How-To book on it all so he wouldn't get slapped for the distruption. But, that doesn't mean that someday a young hotshot programmer won't replace me. It's inevitable. At least it won't be one of his know-nothing buddies.

AlphaW
AlphaW

I see this in my current company, there has been a person who has been in the accounting department for 8 years. He is not well liked, an HR nightmare, not particularly skilled either, but he knows the accounting software and our logistics relationships better than anyone. Letting him go would be so disruptive it is not really worth it to the bosses. (aka he has no replacement under him) On the other hand I was a very good IT manager for 4 years at one company and in an effort to cut costs (I asked for a raise) I was gone. They gave my role to the person right under me, who they knew was cross trained and could do my job. This might be a survival technique these days.

dcolbert
dcolbert

I'm not sure what is so Machiavellian about this approach. So long as outsourced solutions are more efficient and profitable for the company, there doesn't seem to be any ethical implication in choosing to have your staff outside of your actual organization. The only potential ethical trap I can see is in not sharing the knowledge with the organization you work for, thereby consciously *making yourself* indispensible. I'd say that this would cause a false sense of security at the best, anyhow. Your associate wasn't irreplacable, even if his superiors didn't have the goods to realize this. You fire him, put someone equally skilled at his extension, and eventually you rebuild relationships with those external sources or find new resources. To me, it sounds like this facet was jut one aspect of how this guy was superior in his position, and that this is probably why he survived repeated downsizing.

oschmid14
oschmid14

Keep on dreaming. I was like that. No headcount, lots of operational functions had been outsourced. I was the only one (and believe me not by choice) who knew down to the lowest level how it all integrated into our organization. I survived three mergers and acquisitions. Then the 4th one bit me in the a... After 20 years I lost my job to somebody who did not have a clue what was going on. Guess it works only so long ... C'est la vie. Now I am in the business of my own as IT Generalist and trying to make a living.

reisen55
reisen55

Sounds like a UNIQUE strategy. Not every employee is in a similar position. Kudos for out-smarting the s.o.b.s

Ablack7
Ablack7

"I had a boss that directed me to write up a document detailing everything in my programs as to what the business rules were, the way I built them, and anything else needed in case I left. Yeah, right." I can understand that even from a younger generations p.o.v. When i was a supervisor for a logistics company (at age 18,20 now) i had horded self knowledge of the system in my department at 1st not personally just being naive ,but when i found out that i was doing a more than "average" job and seeing how corrupt and incompetent there system ran and they wanted to play hard ball to get me out it turned into another story. My boss would do the most insecure and immature things just out of the assumption that his job was in jeopardy from me (hes been there for like half a decade, and you feel threated by me) ,but the fact of the matter is i just wanted to be good at what i did. So he would do things like bring in one of his buddy's and have it like hes the new manager so no need for you to keep trying. and gossip would always spread so i could never have a real business or just serious conversation with him without him always getting insecure. Since you have to mutual agreements or respect there (and you want to survive) you have to go make your own, i don't know hows that deceitful even if you didn't have to respect or agreement in the first place. when your on the other side of the fence it looks completely different, in my situation it comes down to am i going to conform and just bow down and lose job security "No" ,cant blame him for being an independent thinker and a having back plan you always have to be prepared. From what i have learned so far the business world is not that different from the streets. Its like a rat race "Be a competitor or get out of the weather"

krist
krist

I agree, the article seems rather cynical, but in many ways the guy was doing what most of us have to do in small organizations now and increasingly in large ones too. It seems to me that it is the way of the future and whether the head was too dependent on this manager is really a judgement call that would require knowing the constraints of the organiztion, its size, finances, core business, niche market, and even history, etc.

IT-Sage (bschirf)
IT-Sage (bschirf)

If any manager lets one of his\her employees become valuable simply becaue that employee is the only one that knows the tasks\relationships\etc, then that upper manager is not doing their job. Look at it this way... what would happen if that lower manager was hit by a bus? Would the division be able to handle the loss without major continuity problems? Employees (Managers or Line Workers) should be valuable (and retained) becaues of their direct, weekly contribution to the organization and not simply because they are the only ones that knows where the keys to the vault are hidden. $0.02

techie.brandon
techie.brandon

I don't think it would be too hard to overcome a employee leaving a company if the employee was the main channel for outsourcing. I would expect there to be a sufficient paper trail to follow for each company that was involved and any replacement would merely need to know the basics of what was involved and the companies previously used. Holding keys to company contacts isn't a very secure way to hold a job.