INTERVIEW with H.V. MacArthur, Author of ‘Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius’

In her new book, Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius (2018), career expert and business strategist H.V. MacArthur resets the employer-employee power dynamic in ways that will snap your career back on track. We recently spoke at length about the unspoken rules that lurk in today’s workplace, how to know if changing jobs is right for you, and why you should stop climbing the corporate ladder. Here is some of our conversation.

What inspired you to write Low Man on the Totem Pole?

I didn’t grow up in a family or community of successful career professionals, but I managed to put myself through school by working multiple jobs and serving in the military. When I transitioned out of the military, I had a degree and plenty of good experience but no idea how to translate this into something people would hire and pay me for. After much trial and error, I was able to hone in on what worked, and what didn’t. These experiences created a foundation for how I coach and train people today.

Many people are now facing the same workplace situations I once did, but they don’t have access to career workshops or one-on-one coaching. I want to help these people make sense of our ever-changing business world and enable them to get busy doing the work they love, instead of struggling with how to write a résumé. We live in an era where we have so many opportunities to do what we’re passionate about. I want to help people take advantage of that.

You devote a chapter to some new, unspoken rules in today’s workplace. What’s changed? And why aren’t people talking about it?

Three things have really had a pivotal impact on workplace rules:

First, the world feels more chaotic. People are no longer guaranteed job security simply because they do good work. In a way, this has taken us back to capitalism’s roots — supply and demand. No matter how good we are at our jobs, we have to proactively create demand for what we do, instead of leaving it up to the suits in the C-suite.

Secondly, technology has shifted the pace and nature of change. Workplaces used to reward employees for time in service, but today it’s more about how creative and innovative someone can be, how well they get others to adapt, or how they energize people to create a future for the company they work for.

And finally, globalization has turned “having interpersonal skills” into a competitive edge. Can I throw you into a team and trust that you will quickly forge relationships in a way that inspires everyone to want to work with you? If I can’t, you may be passed over for the job.

Most people aren’t talking about these changes because they’re more focused on combating the side effects of change than on leveraging it. For example, companies pore over how to retain employees, when they could be improving their employee onboarding process or how they enable employees to work together across diverse job functions. It’s like we all get that the workplace has changed, but we’re still focused on how to make these changes work within the outdated assembly line construct that’s no longer relevant to business today.

How do you know if switching jobs — or careers — is the right move?

I think it’s critical to get clear on what you are up to in life, and how your career can support this. When you know what your purpose is — that thing that lights up your passion — you can develop a strategy that will dictate the timing and risk of your career decisions.

Without your personal compass guiding you, it’s too easy to become disillusioned and burned out if you’re not getting pats on the back or constant reassurance. You may start to feel bored or unappreciated in your job, and you may end up looking for a new job to fix this. But if your new job doesn’t align with your purpose, you’ll end up right back where you started.

Don’t gauge when you switch jobs based on how good it feels. Often, doing what we love is a scary, uncomfortable experience because it means so much to us. Instead, gauge your progress, success, and career choices on the compass you create for yourself.

You advise readers to focus on “weaving a web” instead of climbing the corporate ladder. What does this look like?

Companies everywhere are shifting to flatter structures with streamlined org charts. Technology has made knowledge accessible to more and more people, which reduces the need for multiple levels of leadership. This makes today’s corporate ladder shorter than ever. At the same time, the demand for collaboration across various job functions has skyrocketed. Leading an organization is no longer pinned to those high up on the ladder. Leading is as much about having a broad and diverse understanding of a company as it is about getting employees to perform and engage in their work.

As you build your career, put your focus on weaving a web of experiences. Even high-level executives are assessed for the totality of their careers, which include lateral moves and sometimes even lesser roles that afford unique opportunities. In the end, it’s the depth and variety of your experiences that matter, not how quickly you shot up the ladder.

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

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Jennifer Woods - Twitter @WriterJennWoods

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