I recently had the opportunity to sit down with career expert and business strategist H.V. MacArthur, author of the new book Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius. We spoke at length about how to change the power dynamics in today’s workplace, what warning signs appear if your career is off-track, and one of the top mistakes to avoid during the interview process. Here is some of our conversation:
How did Low Man on the Totem Pole come to be?
I’ve always had a passion for people who feel undervalued, or small, because of where they happen to sit in the pecking order of an organizational chart. It’s critical that people feel their greatness no matter what they do for a living. No one should ever feel “less than” someone else. The title “Low Man on the Totem Pole” came to me when a friend’s daughter came home from school one day and explained that, originally, only the best artists were contracted to build the bottom piece of a totem pole; it was seen as the most critical piece of the pole’s foundation. This symbolism clicked with me, and I’ve used it ever since.
You advise employees to view themselves as business owners, even though they work for someone else. What happens when employees make this shift?
So much does. When you stop thinking of yourself as “just an employee” and start viewing yourself as a business owner—and your employer as the client—all the useless feelings of fear and being “less than” disappear. Your brain engages with more curiosity. You’ll want to know more about your clients (your boss and coworkers). You’ll take greater ownership of your success, instead of waiting for your company or manager to guide you to it. You’ll find that you become less triggered by other people’s behaviors because those people are paying customers, so to speak. Someone’s title will no longer pit you against them or automatically align you with them. Instead, the playing field evens out, and titles will simply give you clues as to what problems you might be able to assist with.
Many employees try to “look good for the boss.” But you say this can actually undercut performance. Why is that?
Because it comes from fear. It’s a survival mode. When you spend your time trying to earn brownie points with the boss in an effort to protect your job or position, you’re handing over approval of your worth to another human being. And guess what? All that time you’ve spent trying to look good only distracts you from doing a good job.
Instead of worrying about looking good and gaining favor, focus on doing good work you can take pride in. You’ll not only elevate your performance, but you’ll also “level up” your team and those around you. Remember: your boss doesn’t always have the answers, and you’re being paid to help him or her. If you’re too worried about displeasing the boss, you won’t speak up when you see that the boss, or the team, is headed in the wrong direction, which hurts everyone’s performance.
How do you know if your career is off-track? Are there any warning signs?
One of the first warning signs is when you notice that the little things are becoming major irritations. When we’re doing something we’re passionate about, we barely notice these irritations. But when our passions and careers don’t align, we find ourselves dreading our days at work, even though nothing bad is really happening.
When you’re on the right career path, what do you experience? Most of the time, you don’t even notice what you’re doing; the work tends to flow right through you. You don’t watch the clock. In fact, you may not even notice the time at all. Problems become obstacles you look to solve instead of a drag on your efforts or a dead end.
What’s one of the top mistakes people make during the interview process?
One of the biggest mistakes people make is selling themselves. It can reek of desperation, and you can miss whether the people interviewing you know how to leverage and support your talent. Instead, go into an interview to understand the needs of the people you are meeting with. Identify how you can help them most. Do you have information or tips you could share right then and there? Do you realize you’re the wrong fit? Do you see solutions they’re not even considering?
Consider your interview an initial consultation. You want the person interviewing you to feel what it’s like to work with you, so you want to avoid spending all of your time reciting a personal history of your work experience. By all means, answer any questions a potential employer may have, but try to direct the focus on what he or she wants to get done.
I like to start working with people as quickly as possible, and it all starts during the interview. Even if I’m not hired, I want an interviewer to feel like the initial conversation was a good investment of his or her time. This will pay off for you in other ways, even if you don’t land the job.
To learn more about H.V. MacArthur and her new book, visit her website.