April 28, 2020

Forever Employable

Forever Employable BookA number of weeks ago I was chatting to Jeff Gothelf the co-author of Lean-UX and co-creator of our Professional Scrum with User Experience class. He described a project that he is working on which sparked my interest and is something I believe to be relevant to our Scrum community. I wanted to share some of this discussion with you.

Dave: Jeff, you are working on a new book project called ‘Forever Employable’. This seems quite different from your customer, experience-driven design work. It sounds more like a self-help book for consultants. Why did you start this project, and why should the Scrum community care?

Jeff: Over the past 15 years (an overnight success!) I’ve built a platform for myself that has led to the business I now run on top of that platform. It’s based on my experience, expertise, and willingness to engage a community on these topics -- design, Scrum, digital transformation, product management, and much more. People regularly ask me how I built this business and I finally decided to share that story and what I’ve learned. The biggest benefit that I want to share is that this approach has made me, I believe, forever employable. This means that I don’t look for work anymore. Work finds me. And that is a very powerful place to be. I wanted to help others get there as well as we evolve into a gig-based economy and one based increasingly on broad sharing and distribution. 

Dave: We talk a lot within Professional Scrum about always learning and the importance of being a generalist. Does this contradict your experience as a consultant? Does being a very focused specialist make you more employable? 

Jeff: I think the term “generalist” within the world of Scrum is likely viewed from outside that world as “very focused.” I find that having a focus -- planting a flag as I call it in the book -- is key to building a platform and an audience. You can expand that platform but, at first, being known as the person who knows a lot about “x” is a good place to start. This doesn’t mean that you hoard information in the hopes of being the only person who has that knowledge. On the contrary, you should be sharing broadly and expanding your audience as well as your own knowledge. Without that, you risk being perceived as a bottleneck to the flow of information rather than a source for continuous learning. 

You have to look at your expertise as a “product.” From that perspective, who are your customers? What problem are you helping them solve and how can you be most effective? For example, when I started working on the agile and UX challenge more than 12 years ago now, I was solving problems for designers mostly. As the conversation expanded and the audience broadened I realized this information was valuable (and necessary) for Product Managers, Scrum Masters, Developers, and other members of the Development Team. You’ll notice that over time my content has expanded to cover this broader audience. In a very literal way, I’m applying product thinking, customer centricity, and lean UX to this problem space. 

Dave: It seems very clear that as an independent consultant you need to read this book, build this network and skill set, but what about in a corporate setting. Is this still relevant? Should managers worry if they see this book on their employee’s desks? 

Jeff: Not at all. In fact, I want to see this book on every desk in every company (in more than just a selfish way :-). I think in-house employees can make themselves forever employable within their organizations by being thought leaders in-house. They become not only the go-to person inside the org but the person people outside the org want to come work with. It’s tremendously beneficial to the hiring brand of the company. 

Dave: I wrestle with the need for teams to be stable, experienced with customer/market and the rise of the gig economy. Companies need people who know their business, their customers, their culture so that they can deliver innovation and be effective. But it seems that the next generation of employees seems to be more focused on their own career rather than the company, team, and customer. Is this true, or is it just an old man looking at the world through those eyes? How do you balance the idea of company and individual? 

Jeff: I think corporate loyalty is dead. No matter how hard you work for a company, if things turn south tomorrow you may find yourself out on the sidewalk holding that trademark box of your belongings. By building your platform and becoming a recognized expert you ensure that your time between gigs will be short. It doesn’t mean you’re not promoting the interests of the company but it doesn’t preclude you from promoting your own interests at the same time. The more successful you are, the better it reflects on your employer. It’s symbiotic. In this sense working toward becoming forever employable is in everyone’s best interests. 

Dave: We know from many sources that human beings like being part of a tribe. Companies over the last 100+ years have provided that tribe, where you work helps define you. If company loyalty is dead, then where will people belong? 

Jeff: I think people will belong to tribes of their disciplines and the sub-tribes within them. For example, there is a robust product management community in various places online today -- LinkedIn, Twitter, semi-private Slack communities like the one Mind the Product has set up. In addition to that, you’ll find sub-tribes within those communities where specializations or areas of focus create a demand for a more focused conversation. These are the new places of belonging and it is from these places that new opportunities arise. 

Example from Jeff: One of the most effective things I’ve created in my career is a private, small Slack community of my peers and colleagues. Everyone in our little tribe works in some variation of the lean/agile/design consultant/coach capacity. We share candidly. Vent freely. Learn from and teach each other. And often we form small teams to take on client work together. That tiny little platform has yielded more friendships, business relationships, and interesting work than anything else I do. 

Dave: And what does this book and your thoughts mean for a company? Should we stop people from becoming more employable? I am reminded of the saying ‘If we invest in our people they will leave’ and the counterpoint ‘if you don’t invest in your people they will stay’. What should a hiring manager do?

Jeff: I believe it’s in an organization’s best interests to encourage their people to grow, learn, and share their findings broadly. This helps the individuals become more employable, not just outside of the company, but also inside. They will become better leaders, better practitioners, and better mentors for their peers. They will also present themselves in public in a way that reflects well on their employer, raising the hiring brand, and attracting better talent. This is a win-win scenario in my opinion. I realize that many employers won’t see it this way but in many ways, it’s the democratization of the “evangelist” roles big tech companies have had for years but made accessible, and safe, for everyone in the organization.