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.


Leadership Coach