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Book Review: ‘Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius,’ by H.V. MacArthur

Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius, by career expert and business strategist H.V. MacArthur, is a tough-love letter to the employee in us all. The business world today is radically different than years ago, with pink slips and corporate reorganizations replacing long-term careers and gold retirement watches. But despite these changes, employee attitudes are inexplicably stuck in the past. Too many employees still focus on what employers “owe” them, says MacArthur, instead of jumping into the driver’s seat to control their own career paths.

Low Man on the Totem Pole lays out a unique strategy to do just that. To regain control of your career and reset the employer-employee power dynamic, explains MacArthur, you need to stop thinking like an employee and start viewing yourself as a business owner—and your employer as a client.

It’s a compelling idea that MacArthur guides readers through, step by step, throughout the book’s 324 pages. Though she’s a Fortune 500 consultant with over 20 years in the business, MacArthur comes across in her writing as that good friend who always gives it to you straight. She doesn’t sugarcoat her advice, and that’s precisely what makes it so valuable.

Low Man on the Totem Pole is divided into five parts that cover the full career gamut: from how readers can shift to this new “business owner mindset” (even when working for someone else), to how to analyze and make bold choices that result in career fulfillment. As a military veteran, MacArthur also devotes several chapters at the end of the book to helping veterans move into the civilian workforce, a transition that’s often a jolt for veterans and their employers.

MacArthur begins the book by asking readers an uncomfortable question: Could your mindset be holding you back? Could you be feeling aggressive at work because, deep down, you’re afraid of losing your status or position? Are you kissing up to the boss to stay in his or her good graces? Or are you acting like a helpful business owner would, turning to collaboration and strategic thinking as you align your needs with the needs of others, making it a win-win for everyone?

If this type of win-win working environment seems impossible, MacArthur explains, then it’s time to get into a new mindset, or a new job, where it can be possible. To do this, you need to identify your passions and what makes you tick, so you can put yourself on a career path that suits you best—one where you show up as your best self. To help with this process, MacArthur provides tools and exercises throughout the book that will tease out readers’ passions and nail down their distinct business personality types. MacArthur plays career matchmaker here, poking and prodding to discover how you do your best work, and how you work with other people, to point you toward a perfect “career fit.”

MacArthur also delves into the hard-cutting realities of today’s workplace, while offering strikingly smart ways to handle them. In one example, MacArthur tackles the issue of titles, such as VP, Director, or even President. In a work world where titles are given out like candy, how does anyone stand out? By building a personal brand. This is something everyone should do, MacArthur insists, no matter if you’re an administrative assistant, plumber, or executive. As she puts it: “What creates a more lasting impression: “Coffee” or “Starbucks”? “Car” or “Ferrari”? “Talk show host” or “Oprah”?” In a competitive workplace, who doesn’t want to be Oprah? Branding is where it’s at.

Some of MacArthur’s best advice appears counterintuitive at first. For example, in a chapter she devotes to landing a job, she insists that the interviews you nervously prepare for should never be about you. Instead, they should be about the relationship, or how you click, with the person holding the interview. And the salary you may eventually be offered? Don’t make the common mistake of thinking your salary is about your self-worth, talent, or experience. Salaries are solely based on the market value of a position. As MacArthur points out: Do you pay for eggs based on your feelings about the farmer? No. Do you pay a premium because the hens have years of experience? No. You pay the market rate.

MacArthur fills Low Man on the Totem Pole with many tips like these, including how to write an effective résumé, ways to deal with—and fix—employee performance management, and how to persuade the company you work for to invest in your career growth.

Whether you’re just starting your career or are looking to embark on life’s next chapter, Low Man on the Totem Pole offers sound advice for just about everyone in today’s workforce, and just the right amount of tough love to push you forward.

To learn more about H.V. MacArthur and her new book, visit her website.

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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