Let’s talk about job security. There isn’t any. The technology boom is long over, and most of us have had to endure one or more rounds of layoffs at our companies. In fact, not a few of us have been laid off and have had to start over somewhere else. It’s not clear that things will get better anytime soon.

Wow, what a depressing lead paragraph. In fact, what I have to say isn’t really grim—in fact, it’s good, possibly uplifting advice. In this column, I want to talk about how you can make yourself less vulnerable to being downsized or passed over. I’m going to talk about the concept of “adding value,” and how it increases your worth in the eyes of your boss—and your boss’s boss.

The science of adding value
Being a favorite of motivational speakers and business writers, the concept of “adding value” is well on its way to the graveyard of overhyped phrases. It also suffers from multiple, contradictory meanings.

Here is what I mean when I talk about adding value: performing your duties in such a way that you are perceived by your superiors to offer an advantage to the organization over the “typical” manager in your job.

That’s kind of wordy, so to clarify consider this example. Suppose you’re running the Microsoft Exchange infrastructure for a Fortune 500 company. You manage a group of 10 administrators, spread out in six locations and three countries. How do you add value in that situation? Not by just doing your job well—presumably, that’s basic performance.

You add value by giving your employers something extra, something tangible (if sometimes hard to define) that makes your boss think your salary is money particularly well spent.

There are many ways you can “add value” to your employer. None of them is relevant for every situation, and some aren’t a good match for every IT manager, but they are all worth considering. Here are some of the more common:

  • Working your butt off: Most of us have been here before. Eager to prove ourselves, particularly in a new job, we vow that no one is going to outwork us. This technique is commonly used because it’s effective. After all, if you had to lay off one of two employees, who would you be more likely to keep (everything else being equal): the one who’s willing to stay late to fix a problem, or the one who’s fixated on the clock, counting down the minutes until it’s time to leave? On the other hand, you need to make sure that your supervisor doesn’t end up assuming you’ll always put in all those hours, and routinely overburden you, serene in the knowledge that you’ll put up with it. There is a difference between being accommodating and being a doormat.
  • Institutional knowledge: If you’re like most managers, the longer you do a job, the better you get at it. More importantly, that experience allows you to build up a store of institutional knowledge—the undocumented ins and outs of a job that make you more effective than someone just thrown in that same job. This kind of knowledge can be even more useful if your supervisor is relatively new to the organization; it can give you the opportunity to educate your boss on potential pitfalls to proposed projects. The downside of institutional knowledge is that for it to be useful, you have to share it with others. Too many technical managers try to hoard their information like a miser hoards his gold. (Here is a column that addresses the topic at greater length.)
  • Working cheap: If the going rate for a position is x, and you’re willing to work for 90 percent of x, aren’t you adding value? Well, yes and no. It’s certainly true that working for below-market rates will allow your company some budget freedom, and in these tough times, that’s something. On the other hand, there are several problems with this approach. First, the cost-cutting logic implied in this equation never ends. What if you’re up against a job candidate who’s willing to work for 80 percent of x? What about overseas outsourcing—are you ready to compete on price with Bangalore’s best and brightest? I don’t think so. Second, while IT executives enjoy saving money when possible, they are also rightly suspicious of something that looks too good to be true. Price yourself too low against the market, and companies are bound to start asking why. Finally, consider your own attitude. Wouldn’t you end up resenting a company that paid you considerably below market wages for your job, even if you agreed to it when you were hired?
  • Knowing what not to do: Sometimes you can add value by knowing when you can’t add value. This allows you to concentrate on tasks that play to your strengths. For example, here at TechRepublic, we create books and CD-ROMs for IT professionals. However, we didn’t buy a printing press or a CD duplicator. Why not? Because we can’t really add value by doing our own printing or duplicating. Instead, we contract out with a printing company, and spend our time trying to create the best possible content—that’s how we add value.
  • Inspired leadership: IT managers are leaders. Leadership isn’t just the ability to keep a project on time, or under budget. Those skills are essential but not sufficient. One way to stand out from your peers is to develop and showcase your ability to inspire people to follow you—not because they have to, but because they trust you and believe what you tell them. This is different from simply getting your team to like you. While always nice, that’s not what I’m talking about here. Inspired leadership is the ability to motivate a team or group to perform feats they didn’t believe were possible. If you can do that, you’ve proven your worth to just about any employer.
  • Creative ideas: When I was a kid, one of my coaches’ favorite sayings was “You can’t teach quick.” The jury is still out on whether or not you can teach a manager to think creatively. (I’m skeptical, but that’s another story.) Perhaps someday you’ll be able to learn how to think creatively in the same way you can learn how to migrate to Active Directory. Unless and until that happy day comes, however, creative thinkers will always be at a premium. If you’ve got the gift of conceiving new solutions for tough problems, then make sure your boss knows about it.

That’s not an exhaustive list of ways you can add value, by any means. Further, as I said earlier, none of us have all these gifts, nor are all of them appropriate for every job. Perform a skills assessment on yourself, and find out which of these plays to your strengths. Then continue to develop these “value-adding” skills, and make sure your supervisor knows about your efforts. After all, there’s no point in “adding value” if no one knows about it.

From the IT Leadership Web log

I often point out articles on the issues facing IT managers on TechRepublic’s blog for technical managers and their bosses. It’s called IT Leadership—check it out today. It’s free, and I post to it almost every business day.