Thriving as an Employee

There is no shame in being an employee. In fact, most people don’t run their own business.

I’ve been lucky enough to be an employee, along with running a salon business with my wife. Over the years I’ve enjoyed working for a company. I’ve gotten to work with amazing people, and solve interesting problems. My experience in being an employee has given me valuable experience that extends beyond my job.

Below are the things I’ve learned in the last 17 years or so being an employee.

Effective Communication

If there is one thing I would list as the most crucial aspect of being an employee, communication would be it. I’ve written about this in the past.

Effective communication is more than just having the ability in talking or writing an email. Being a great communicator involves being highly organized and productive.

If you gave two tasks to two different people, they probably are going to take a different amount of time to get the same job done. It comes down to how much time is wasted doing the following:

  • Working on solving the wrong problem
  • Not bringing up roadblocks early
  • When they start working on the task, they don’t ask the right questions
  • They spin their wheels for massive amounts of time before asking for help
  • Not breaking up complex problems into smaller tasks
  • Committing to impossible deadlines, or committing before having enough info
  • They make incorrect assumptions

Some of these things are solved from experience, but I’ve even seen this problem crop up from people who have been working for a long time. Intelligence is not a guarantee that the above things will get handled.

I try to over-communicate early and often to get ahead of any problems lurking in the project. Sometimes I can be a bit wordy, but I do think being thorough has helped me tremendously as an employee. Click To Tweet

One thing I’ve been working on is getting more to the point with fewer words, to make my responses more digestible.

Reliability

When you prove that you are reliable, people at your company will learn that you can be trusted. This trust increases your value and your income over time.

No one likes to work with someone who is flaky.

Not being flaky also relates to the following:

  • Showing up on time
  • Having a strong work ethic
  • Solving problems effectively
  • Being able to tackle complex issues
  • Not repeating the same mistakes

Reliability and communication often go hand in hand.

Have you ever worked with someone who seems to struggle with the same problems over and over again? This is not the type of employee you want to be. Because if people need to be fired, these are the first employees considered.

You want to set yourself up in a way where the company will hurt if you are not around. Click To Tweet

There is a balance between not having the company depend on you so much that you can’t take vacations or your time is split too much between multiple priorities. But you also don’t want to be in a place where your company realizes they don’t need you either.

Want to take your value to the next level? Help co-workers become more efficient. Doing this will make you a superstar at your company.

Learning on the Job

If you are continually learning ways that improve what you do, this will make you an incredibly valuable employee.

Most of the problems I face aren’t unique to what I haven’t already solved in one way or another in the past (there are exceptions). I would categorize learning into two main categories:

  • Usual Problems: These are problems that you regularly encounter in some form or another.
  • Unique Problems: These are problems that go out of your usual comfort zone.

By learning how to tackle the “usual problems” you regularly see, you can save a ton of time from your regular day. Solving these types of problems more efficiently has the most chance of increasing the value in the job you already have. Over time, you should see the time it takes to solve these types of problems get reduced.

When you tackle unique problems, you increase the types of problems you can work on, and open yourself up to future possibilities getting jobs that focus on different skillset. You also limit the chances of boxing yourself in too much, because what you are working on now might end up going away in the future.

For example, I worked a lot in a content management system called Drupal. I still spend most of my working day inside this platform. But I’ve started getting deep into WordPress and other PHP/JS frameworks. Not only have I learned a ton doing this, but I’ve also expanded my experience to be useful in other types of jobs outside of Drupal.

The more you can get used to learning new things, the more your value will increase over time.

Helping Co-Workers

No one likes to work with someone who is arrogant, or who is not willing to help.

Have you ever struggled with a problem and would have loved someone to give you some tips to help you save time? Be that person. It usually doesn’t take much time to offer some words of wisdom, and you probably will save the company tons of wasted time.

Not only that, but your co-workers could end up being a useful future job reference on your resume. Avoid burning bridges as much as possible. Who knows—one of your co-workers could end up being your manager/boss or starting their own company one day.

Every human connection you make has the potential of being an asset later if they aren't already one. Click To Tweet

It can be easy to focus on the problems that are relating to what’s immediately around you. And you can’t dedicate all of your time in helping other people solve their problems. But there is something therapeutic about helping your co-workers solve a problem. A healthy work environment is where knowledge and wisdom are shared freely.

And when you help your coworkers, you might learn something new yourself.

Problem Solving

This skill might be specific to the web development/programming field I work in, but strengthening your problem-solving skills cannot be overstated.

I’ve learned there are many ways to solve the same problem. Some of them involve much more work and time to figure out.

When a task or request comes in, sometimes the client will be asking for something specific to be done. But as a problem solver, you need to think about what they are trying to do. Do they really know the best way to solve that problem? Are there other options that would require less time or work, and still meet their needs?

We are the experts in our field, so we need to be careful about not taking each request literally. This idea is another reason why communication early in the project/task is vital in not wasting time.

I’ve seen situations where a client asks for something particular to be done. The work is completed, only to find out that what the client requested wasn’t what they ultimately wanted. When this happens, it frustrates all parties.

The key here is to get behind what the client wants to accomplish, as opposed to the specifics on the implementation. Doing this allows you to take a close look at all of the options and present the best possibilities.

Your Employer Doesn’t Own You

Employer loyalty can be a good thing. If you found a company that pays well and is a place where you can grow, company loyalty can be fantastic.

But don’t think that just because you’ve spent XX years at a company, that you are bound to stay there forever. If you are a valuable employee, even if you did leave, you most likely will have the chance in coming back later (as an option). This scenario is what happened in my case. I ended up taking a job with another company and came back 1.5 years later when I wanted a change. This might be specific to private sector jobs.

Assuming you are working with half-decent human beings, they understand that sometimes people need a change. Having you leave might be painful, but it also can be healthy for the company in making things run without you.

There might be multiple reasons why you might consider looking for a new job:

  • Burn out, which can be common with high-impact employees
  • More money
  • Better benefits or increased time flexibility (like working remotely)
  • Finding a less stressful job
  • Needing to work on different types of projects/problems

Earlier in my career, I was hyper-paranoid about even thinking about quitting. I was concerned about burning bridges and transitioning to a job that I hated. But most of this was in my head. Even if my employer couldn’t/wouldn’t take me back, I could always find another job with a different company if the transition didn’t work out.

The time you work at a company is “time” that you have provided value to that company. It is not more chains that bind you to that company in any way or form. The time you have given towards the company you work for is a benefit to you and the company, and there is no shame seeking alternative job options.

The hardest part about leaving a long-standing job is breaking the relationships you’ve built during that time. But even those relationships are not equal to a commitment that binds you to any company or person. It isn’t like you are married to the company!

Being Miserable

If you are miserable, your effectiveness in your job is going to be limited. There is going to be times when you have to do things you don’t like to do or make you feel uncomfortable.

But if it gets to a spot where you are miserable most of the time, it might mean you should bring it up with your employer. If nothing ends up changing, or if it gets worse, it might be time to look for a new job.

It’s one thing to expect your job to be 100% rainbows and butterflies all the time. It’s a whole other animal if you would rather break your arm every day than go to work. Or if emotional abuse or manipulation is happening. These things are not acceptable.

Being cognitive on what you like or dislike about your job can be info you use when talking to your boss/manager. If you hide your frustration until it builds up to the point of exploding, you aren't giving your employer much time to fix… Click To Tweet

Your Years As an Employee Are Valuable

Sometimes I think being an employee gets a bad rap. But there are several advantages to being an employee:

  • Company benefits, such as health insurance, 401k with a match, paid time off, etc.
  • You might be able to travel for free
  • Being able to focus on the problems you solve, and not have to worry about the company finances
  • Freedom to switch companies
  • The tools/equipment you use is paid for by the company
  • Some companies will pay for education, like conferences

I’m not trying to take a shot at being a business owner, because that has unique perks. I just don’t like it when people look down on working for a company.

Many people who are doing very well financially are employees, and it can provide unique benefits. It is a great time to increase your income and save as much as possible.

The only negative aspect I see about being an employee is that the company owns your time. Even the most flexible jobs have limits. Also, you limit the amount of income you see from your hard work since those profits go to the company and not directly to you.  But I still think working for a company has other benefits that can make it worth your time.

Leverage

The more valuable you become as an employee, the more leverage you have. This leverage can be used in requesting raises, benefits, or time flexibility.

For example, if you hate having to commute to your job every day, you could request either working part-time or full-time from home. Or maybe you need to take an extended sabbatical for whatever reason. The more value you have built up, the more likely your employer will be willing to bend over backwards to meet your request. You usually don’t even have to bring up that you are thinking about looking for a new job, even though that might be worth doing if there is something that becomes a priority.

When you have proven that you are a valuable asset to your employer, they realize you will not be easy to replace. I wouldn't use this leverage as a manipulation tactic, but I wouldn't hold back on requesting what you want directly. The… Click To Tweet

Especially if you want to make more money, if you can get job offers, this might do the following:

  • You can see if you are underpaid for what you do
  • It could start a bidding war between your current and new employer, which always benefits you
  • You can see what other options are out there. Who knows, you might find something way better than what you thought existed

I don’t suggest doing this regularly since if you continuously bring up to your employer every other month that you have a new job offer, they might decide to let you go. Your plan could end up backfiring.

Conclusion

Learning to increase your value as an employee often comes with raises, promotions, and flexibility. You could see yourself making much more money than you would make if you owned your own business in some cases.

By learning to be an effective communicator, reliable, and an excellent problem-solver, you can increase your leverage to get what you want. Your value will increase, and more options will become available.

Are there things you’ve learned as an employee that has benefited your career?

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Steveark
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I worked for over three decades for the same company, rising from intern to VP and General Manager of a very large division of a Fortune 200 company. I think you did a great job of detailing how to thrive. It isn’t really rocket science. It is just what you said, being helpful, reliable and being able to produce solutions, not just describe problems. And especially good is your advice on giving your clients what they need, not just what they ask for. The genius employee that gets the promotions and eventually runs the place is the one that realizes… Read more »