Congratulations! You won the gig (or new role, for you internal folks). Now you’re ready to begin the roller-coaster ride of a new endeavor.
Remembering why you were hired—and identifying whether or not you belong—is just as important as getting the gig. To sustain career and mental health, you must work within your means and know how to navigate ambiguous workplace situations. Using client and project management techniques is one part of the solution. Using your talent is the other.
One for the money
Can you remember being on a project or in a professional position where someone, somewhere, didn’t raise the question: “how much are we paying for this?” The question is sometimes born of jealousy or financial responsibility, but usually not out of malice. The client and their team want their money’s worth. Do your job correctly and hopefully it won’t become a question of “Why are we paying for this?”
Money has a way of becoming an immediate barrier to your success. You need to address this and, to use gaudy corporate language, mitigate the risk. It’s important to note that there are slight differences in handling this situation if you’re a freelancer, contractor, or agency representative, as opposed to a full-time hero.
For freelancers, agency team members, and other hired guns, remember the following five tips:
- Set your rate and the associated deliverables up front. Get a signature that binds both you and the client to the same ground rules.
- Never discuss your rate with a client’s staff member. It’s none of their business what you’re paid and it’s usually more than they’re getting per hour (risk, insurance, and cost discussions set aside for now).
- Show up and do the job on time. Your work is usually subjective and a responsible reputation can help you influence the outcome of a design presentation, an application demo, a product review or a crucial conversation.
- Don’t treat your invoices with an apologetic tone. You and the client agreed to a rate and a schedule of terms. Submit the invoice and thank them for their prompt payment.
- Fulfill your obligation. Even if you have to bring in a resource under cover of darkness and eat the cost of the extra help, do the job you agreed to do. This will not only get you prompt payment, but will also boost your reputation.
For full-time folks, slight variations apply.
- Negotiate your pay up front and get it in writing. Negotiating your salary is probably the only time in your career where you can establish your worth. “Settling” for lower pay than what you need will only lead to problems for both you and the employer.
- Never discuss your salary with coworkers. Sharing salary information is not only inappropriate, it can lead to real trouble in the workplace.
- Show up and do the job on time. Your work and your work ethic will help you succeed.
- Just as a contractor or freelancer, you negotiated a rate and you should feel comfortable with your financial arrangement. Raises are tough to come by these days, so don’t make money your only priority.
- Fulfill your obligation. This is just as important, if not more so, to an internal associate as it is to a hired gun. Your long-term employment depends on whether or not you get the job done.
But what about those times where you’ve settled in, only to realize that you’re not actually doing what you were hired to do? The reality of many companies is that they badly need help but don’t always know how to manage or properly delegate. In those situations, you’ll need to use client management techniques and your talent to course-correct or make a decision.
Two for the show
In the summer of 2000, I was searching for clients and bracing myself for the rest of the bubble-burst. Things were tense. Money was starting to get tight. My choices were to take a full-time management position with a large company where I was guaranteed a sense of security, or to take on two small clients that together could barely pay 85% of my mortgage.
Hello, job security
The in-house training and instant brand recognition by my friends and family were rewarding, and the environment was filled with people who “bled the company colors.” I was all for it. That is, until I realized that I was not doing what I was hired to do. Over a very short period my role devolved to directing traffic and my sense of empowerment (a word used as freely in corporations as “strategy,” with even less meaning) evaporated.
I had two options: approach the management behemoth and demand I be given the responsibility and the freedom to do what I was hired to do, or put on a smile and wait it out.
I did both.
I approached management and asked them to work with me on achieving balance between good and evil. And while I didn’t get as much freedom as I thought I deserved, I learned a great deal about corporate culture and being humble. I could have quit the job and walked away, knowing full well that I’d be eating some combination of frosted cereal and peanut butter on toast. I could have easily created bedlam and embarrassed both the boss and myself.
Instead, I chose to apply my favorite project management techniques.
Take an inventory
Take a complete inventory of what the team is working on and compare it to the initial scope of work. This is useful for any project and should be done each and every time you provide a status report. If you notice you’re off schedule or off course, correct it. Notify your client or management and ensure that you have your data points before you arrive at the table to discuss the correction.
Create a project journal
Take fifteen minutes to list six to ten observations from each day’s action in a journal or project diary to keep track of progress and things to address when people aren’t in the heat of the moment. During your “lessons learned” meeting, use selected entries to point out what went well and how the team can be more efficient working with vendors and other departments.
Like it or not, you’re the one who stands to gain or lose the most if you decide to stick with your job. Prove you have what it takes to do the job. And while there are certainly no guarantees, that proof will serve you tremendously in that crucial conversation with upper management on how you expect to change things moving forward.
Three to get ready
How can you possibly prepare for something you weren’t hired to do? How do you navigate meetings and work with your staff? How do you get the most out of the situation without damaging your career? Your talent got you this far, so how about using it to your advantage?
Information is power
As a professional, you have a certain amount of power because you know what it takes to do your job. And, even if you’re not doing exactly the job you thought you’d be doing, use the knowledge and experience in your cerebral back pocket to influence your situation. Be prepared when that meeting comes. Here are some tips to help you prepare for a meeting, whether it’s for a client presentation, your staff meeting, or your crucial conversation with upper management:
- Take the meeting seriously, even if you believe it’s likely to be a total waste of time. Take the time to review the agenda (if you’re lucky enough to have one) or speak to the meeting host ahead of time about expected outcomes.
- Include yourself. If you attend the meeting, do your best to enhance the environment with your expertise without taking over the meeting. If your item didn’t make the agenda, approach the subject carefully with the chairperson during the meeting and ask them to include it if possible.
- Know your facts. You are responsible for gathering, verifying, and presenting your information. To successfully support your vision, make sure you can convey your ideas credibly.
Preparation is key to any professional success. You may not be able to change someone’s mind about a specific topic, but you can at least counter an argument with valid data and realistic feedback.
Four to go
All right. You’re pretty sure you’ve done all you can about your situation, but something isn’t right. You may feel it’s just not getting any better.
Is it time to leave? Is it “giving up” if you take an early exit? Will you be able to find something else that will give you both the financial and creative environment you need? Does it matter?
When you enter a contract or statement of work with a client, you should assume it’s a mutual agreement. If things don’t follow the letter of the contract and you let it happen without saying anything, you risk appearing as though you accept it.
Making the decision to stay or leave a secure environment isn’t fun. Weigh the options carefully. Don’t be spontaneous. And, just as you would prepare for a presentation or business development opportunity, prepare to accept your situation or make changes.
Many people start careers doing things they don’t necessarily feel are within their job description. It takes maturity and patience to consider whether the work you’re doing will benefit or damage your career. It takes maturity and patience to have that crucial conversation with upper management if necessary. It’s easy to feel that you’re wasting your time and should be working towards a pay raise and increased stature. But that’s what makes people successful—a drive to something better.
The bottom line is this: you are responsible for your own happiness, but you should always be aware of the cost. If you feel you will be able to perform to new levels and maintain a sense of peace in your career, then by all means explore, but please remember that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It shouldn’t be a question of “Why did you hire me?” but “When will we get to work together again?”