Employee Driven Careers: “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

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This advice from comedian, actor, screenplay writer, banjo master, Steve Martin is his response over the years whenever he’s asked, “How do you make it in show business? He goes on, “If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’ people are going to come to you.”

It seems like great advice to me.

The problem is, most people don’t think they can be that good. Most people don’t recognize their own value. In fact, most people though they will deny it, deep down inside lack the confidence in their own abilities to the point that they hold back. When they hold back, they don’t do their best work. When they don’t do their best work, they’re easy to ignore.

I’ll give you a real-world example of this inability to recognize one’s own value. 

It’s me.

Several years ago, I worked at a place who as a matter of practice had an annual reduction in force. While you couldn’t set your clock by this annual unpleasantness, you could set your calendar by it. It happened right before the start of the new fiscal year as the company went on a diet, trimmed the fat, and got in shape to hit the fiscal year running as lean as could be. 

I was a manager in that organization and we all came to expect it in the spring every year. 

One day, I was replacing some of my kids’ drawings with the latest versions. Whenever I did this, I placed the old ones in an unmarked folder that was now bulging with cards and art from Amy, Lauren, and Brady.

It must have been in the midst of one of these reductions when I noticed the folder was unmarked. It was then that the thought occurred that I didn’t want to lose this mini munchkin museum of art. Without much conscious thought, I took my pen and scrawled on the tab, “Stuff I need should they ever walk me out of here”.

Looking back, I believe that was a turning point in my performance and my career at that company. Rather than think of myself, “I’m going to always be so good they can’t afford to let me go (so good they can’t ignore me)” I made a folder that prophesied my future untimely departure. Prophesied, in a self-fulfilling kind of way.

What you should know is to that point, I had absolutely no reason to believe I would ever have my neck on that chopping block. I had successfully managed some of their biggest strategic projects (and I’m not even a project manager). I had, on at least 4 occasions, been the one left standing when it came down to letting managers go. I had consistently built the most engaged teams that the company has ever seen. I was even the ghost-writer for our GM when he had a hard-to-swallow email that needed to be sent to “all”, because I had a way of delivering it with a spoonful of sugar.

Still, on that day, I wrote on that folder, “Stuff I need should they ever walk me out of here”, because I didn’t recognize and receive the value that I clearly brought to the company. 

My decline wasn’t overnight. It took a few years, but I really started to believe I didn’t add much value, and then I would find evidence that they didn’t need me. The more evidence I found the less effective I became. Until one morning, a few years later, my boss called me and said, “Ryan, can you meet me in the conference room in the front lobby?”

Do you see how critical it is that you recognize and receive your value?

The best way to do this is to take charge of and drive your own career. You’ve got to be your own CMO – Chief Marketing Officer. If you don’t see and promote your value, nobody else possibly can. What’s worse is the effect of believing that you don’t add value. Your effectiveness will decline. You will not be so good they can’t ignore you. You can hope that on RIF day, they will ignore you. Eventually, you won’t be ignored, but for an entirely different reason. You’ll blame it on some other factor, ageism, or that they hate you, or that they’re crazy, but if you’re so good they can’t ignore you, “people are going to come to you.”

If you want to begin to recognize and receive your value, and be so good they can’t ignore you, take a look at these items and how they apply to you.

What are your career drivers?

These may be things like culture, vision, flexibility, collaboration, trust, or any number of other things that are important in making your career fulfilling. Once you know what they are, then determine how well they’re being met. Finally, have a conversation about them with your manager.

What are the things that you do really, really well?

The best way to do this is to think about peak experiences in your career. Those times when you were energized by the work, knew what to do instinctively, time passed without notice and you couldn’t wait to get back to it. When you’re doing this type of work and having this type of experience, it’s because you have a talent for the work in which you are engaged.

What are your skills?

What things can you do and what do you know a lot about? Couple these with the things you do really, really well and you’ve got a winning combination to be so good they can’t ignore you.

What is your personal career vision?

Surely you’ve got one. What do you want to be doing at the pinnacle of your career? This doesn’t have to be something big like being a backup dancer for Lady Gaga. Maybe it’s what you’re already doing? If so, I’m happy for you. If not, dare to dream. Dare to dream big. I’ve got lots of stories of people I’ve coached who’ve dreamed big and are living those dreams.

Be so good, they can’t ignore you. When you do, make sure you take time to recognize you really are good at what you do. This will give you the juice to continually catch the updraft and avoid the tailspin that comes when you assume you don’t bring the value.

Join Ryan Houmand, Bridge Employee Development Consultant & Trainer, at our next Bridge Academy for Managers. These webinar trainings will share industry standards and best practices for a manager’s role, specific to one-on-one meetings, career drivers, skill feedback, and goal setting. 


Drew Stinger

Drew Stinger

Drew has been immersed in the learning technology space for over six years and has loved every minute of it. From working in global ad agencies (McCann Erickson), and professional sports organizations (go Jazz!), and now in learning technology, Drew has gained valuable insights in the world of managing teams, clients, and peers. Drew loves enabling individuals and teams to have more open, effective conversations centered around connection, alignment and growth and has seen the impact it can have on employee satisfaction and productivity. Skiing, biking, netflix-ing (that’s a word right?), and being a remote working dad, are just a few of his passions!

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