Help! I Made Myself Obsolete: How to Stay Valuable at Work

Help! I Made Myself Obsolete: How to Stay Valuable at Work

Everything was on fire when Jacob joined Horizon Engineering as a new manager. Deadlines were missed, team morale was low, and no one really knew what was going on. Jacob knew what to do though, and over the next couple years, he transformed his group. The fires slowly began to disappear and the team began to operate like a well-oiled machine. Jacob was recognized for his achievements, always scoring as a high performer. It seemed like for every major problem he solved, his compensation and recognition grew.

Jacob’s department was the envy of the organization, but after two years of running things smoothly, he started feeling like something was wrong. He knew there was always gossip and politicking, but he didn’t pay much attention to it. The strange thing was, he used to have a lot more leeway when it came to leading his team. Lately, however, he had to justify his management style and decision-making pretty often. How could things have changed so quickly? He wondered what was going on…

The Value Gap. I want you to ingrain that term into your mind because if you haven’t faced a similar situation as Jacob, you will. As high performing engineers and managers we solve problems. We make things better. We fix things. Eventually there will come a point when you’ve fixed everything under you. That’s when the danger comes.

What’s the Value Gap—Why Does it Matter?

I’m going to jump right in and if you take anything away, make sure you remember this simple graph. It’ll potentially save your career and keep you on track for continued success.

The Value Gap -
The Value Gap: Compensation vs. Problems Solved Over Time

The value gap is essentially when the problems you solve (the value you bring to your company) become less than the compensation you make. It’s when your boss is left wondering if he’s paying too much for what you’re doing. It’s a natural part of your career progression, so without doing something proactive, it’s going to happen to you.

What the graph above shows is how over time compensation will rise as you continue to solve problems. This is the case for all high performers. Overtime, the number of problems you’re solving will decrease, and you’ll find yourself maintaining systems and a team that seemingly operates on auto-pilot. If you’re not finding new problems to solve, you’ll end up with the gap you see. This is a huge career liability and will leave you feeling extremely vulnerable.

How many times have you seen career veterans fall out of favor? People who were running the show being forced out of their positions. Your legacy means very little these days, it’s what you’ve done right now that counts the most. It’s what you’ll bring to the future that makes you valuable.

Help! What Do I Do?

It was year-end review and bonus time. Jacob was stunned. He held in his anger for as long as he could, but couldn’t believe his review said he was not exceeding expectations. His bonus suffered too. It wasn’t fair. He was busting his butt to make sure things continued to go smoothly, and for what? Jacob felt demoralized, disrespected, and under appreciated.

He went to his boss, Edgar, complaining about the situation. What Edgar said next stopped Jacob in his tracks. “What problems have you been tackling recently? You used to go above and beyond, but I’m just not seeing it anymore.” Jacob spent the next hour trying to defend himself but it didn’t matter. The review was over, the decision was made. He didn’t understand what happens. How did he fall so quickly?

Don’t wait until you’re in such a bad situation to act. If you already are, you can still get yourself out. Remember one simple thing: your ability to solve problems was what people valued in you. You haven’t lost that ability, you were just too effective and possibly too complacent. Start looking for new problems to solve. This might mean stepping out of your comfort zone, but it’s what needs to be done. Being uncomfortable means you’ll be learning something new and hopefully adding value back to your organization.

Finding The New Problems to Solve

There are always problems to solve where you work and if you don’t know what they are, you have two choices. One is to ask your boss, and the other is to start talking to more people. Eventually you’ll begin to see the areas within the company that need help. You’ll also see the things that no one else wants to do. One of the most effective ways to start adding value is what I call taking out the garbage.

Problems that are rotten, the ones no one wants to get involved with, are the ones that will keep your career fresh and healthy. It really is like taking out the trash. Not only are you cleaning house, but people will be reminded that when you’re around, things improve. While you don’t always have to do the dirty work to improve your career, it’s a good place to look if you’re not sure what to do.

Another option you have is to identify opportunities or issues that others just don’t notice. You could look to improve the overall process at work or just find incremental efficiency gains. Again, the way to find these things is to start talking with more people. Get out there and network, otherwise you’re going to have a hard time.

Avoiding Stagnation in The Future

It’s probably not a smart idea to tell your manager you think you’re in the value gap territory. To avoid having to do this, and avoid falling into it in the first place, I strongly recommend finding a career mentor. Don’t make it complicated either. A mentor can simply be someone within your company that you respect and has a solid reputation. They’re there to help you when you’re feeling unsure or stuck. Your boss can most likely help you find the right person and take care of the introduction for you.

Avoiding stagnation means staying ahead of the curve. By now, you should realize that waiting until you’re no longer as valuable as you once were is a bad idea. You should always be on the lookout for ways to add value to the company you’re at. If you find yourself doing the same thing for years on end, the chances are, your role will eventually become obsolete. Don’t let comfort and complacency cause you a career disaster.

I’ve written a previous blog posts about how to avoid being laid off. While I hope you’re far from that, it’s always worth it to assess your role and the contributions you’re making. Even if you feel like you’re an innovative, hard-working individual, beware of external factors that can change the priorities around you. I hope after reading this that you’ll never fall into a trap where the value you bring is ever hard to justify.


Credit: Feature image by Freepik

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