In my last article, I explored the process of finding and living out your purpose. Today, I want to talk about how your purpose is bound to your value.
Let’s start unpacking that by distinguishing three kinds of value.
The Values You Hold
Your personal values are your most deeply held beliefs, your fundamental truths, highest priorities, and moral compass. Your personal values also influence how you work in and navigate your company’s culture.
You can’t perform your best, most meaningful, or truly authentic work unless that work is aligned with your values. Otherwise, it means you’re adopting someone else’s measure of what’s worthy, which will make the work ring hollow. Knowing your values means discerning what matters and what doesn’t.
The Values You Display
What do you contribute to your position, your organization, and your industry? This is your professional value.
When I first start working with a client, we take an in-depth inventory of their strengths—writing down at least fifty skills, qualities, personal traits, and expertise. At first, clients find this exercise daunting. They can easily get to twenty, maybe twenty-five. But fifty strengths? Yes.
Here’s why: your value includes anything and everything you contribute to influence your organization’s bottom line. That means, in addition to your degree and your work experience, contributions like your executive function, task management, conflict resolution skills, ability to give and take constructive feedback, etc.
Giving Your Strengths Life by Giving them Language
Writing down our professional value 1) makes it real and concrete; 2) helps us see how much value we truly bring to our work; and 3) gives us the language to express our value to others.
And we have to talk about our value and our impact. It’s not good enough to know you’re good at your job. If you don’t articulate your value, particularly to your supervisor, then your value is mute, and you’re stuck waiting and hoping that someone else will see it too. If, by chance, someone happens to recognize your value, their evaluation of you won’t be objective—it will be an opinion that defines your value. And we know too well that opinions are influenced by all kinds of bias.
Waiting and hoping is not a career strategy.
No One Else Can Manage Your Career
I finally understood the importance of articulating one’s own value when I became an administrator at a law firm, with sixteen direct reports. With all my job responsibilities, I didn’t have the time or capacity to keep track of every employee’s every strength. It was, in fact, their responsibility to bring it to my attention.
And 99% of the time, when someone negotiated a salary increase with reasons, evidence, and a narrative about their contributions to the firm, I agreed with them and tried to match their request. What became clear to me in that role is that no supervisor is going to manage your career. That’s your job. Even the most involved and attentive supervisor will never advocate for you as well as you can advocate for yourself.
Your Strengths Will Lead You to Your Values
We all play to our strengths, but did you know that your strengths nearly always grow out of your deepest values? Because your values inspire you to build skills and gain mastery in the areas that serve your core beliefs.
If, for example, you value operational smoothness, you will be led to develop excellent time management, task management, proactive communication, and other project management skills. Even unconsciously, we practice, hone, and improve the skills that help us live out our values.
Too often, we think of our professional value only in terms of performing a limited set of job duties. We undervalue our many essential hard and soft skills. We forget that not everyone is organized or detail-oriented, and so we don’t give ourselves any credit for these attributes we worked hard to master.
The Value You Earn
We don’t like to talk about money. The very word negotiation tends to arouse anxiety and stress. But we need to get comfortable with it. Because the truth is, your compensation is one very real measure of how your organization values you.
Your compensation is a measurable assessment of your competency, expertise, importance, and usefulness. And if your compensation is lower than a colleague with your same skills, then your importance is being assessed as lower than theirs—regardless of your actual contributions.
And it’s not just about a dollar amount. Compensation matters because it influences the way others treat us, whether we receive or are denied opportunities, and whether our potential is seen or ignored.
The Value of Getting Hired
Companies often place new hires on a salary scale, either on the high or low end of their step. From that moment forward, your value is assessed and tracked. Your career plan must involve negotiating for the highest compensation possible—which starts before you even accept the job.
In fact, negotiation begins with your very first contact with a new employer. While you’re determining whether this employer will support and invest in you, you’re also using the interview to share your value, your impact, and the benefits you will contribute. Throughout the hiring process, you must demonstrate your value and advocate for why you should be at the top of your salary range.
Keep Talking about Your Value
Once you get hired, the conversation about your professional value doesn’t stop. It should be a regular and ongoing topic with your supervisor or manager. This doesn’t mean you go in asking for a raise every day. Rather, you are simply making your employer aware of your impact in consistent and organic ways.
For instance, at the end of a project, you check in with your supervisor and debrief the outcomes, describing your accomplishments and why they matter to others and the organization at large. Or at every 1:1 meeting, you describe your contributions to company success, ask whether your supervisor agrees, and ask for feedback. These regular, low-stakes check-ins are also when you need to be sharing your career goals and giving your employer clarity on how they can support you.
Do this regularly and by the time you’re going in for a formal performance review, you’ve already long been engaged in “negotiation.” As many of us know, by the time you’re in a formal negotiation setting, the next year’s budget has already been set and your opportunity to influence your compensation will have passed.
Real World Negotiations
Let me share two stories of negotiation with you. Last month, a client of mine interviewed for a new job. This client attended my Building Audacity event last November, and then we’ve since worked together one-on-one to sharpen her professional story and how she presents herself. As a younger female, she’s aware of how her age (or her perceived age) can potentially impact her compensation. Well, she was offered the job with a compensation of twice her current salary. Because she showed up with authenticity, confidence, and a strong narrative of her value, her age or years of experience didn’t negatively impact her compensation.
The second story is from my own career as I transitioned from recruiting to managing in a large law firm. Early in my tenure there, a recruiter called and connected me with another big firm looking to hire. I looked into the opportunity and was offered a job, with a salary increase of $20,000. It was, to say the least, very tempting and very shocking.
At that point in my career, I didn’t even know that I could have been and should have been tracking my compensation and my opportunities. I liked my employer and was happy in my job, so it never occurred to me that I might have been settling and undervaluing myself.
I took the offer back to my current employer and received another shock: they matched my outside offer and increased my responsibilities without hesitation. While I was excited, it confirmed to me that I had been underpaid for the past two years!
Here’s what I learned from this experience: employers do what they want. They can say they are constrained by the market and budget decisions made above their heads, but when it comes down to losing a valuable employee, they can and will work to keep you. So, it behooves us to speak up, to ask, and to know our value.
The Company You Value
Just as a side note: if you work for a company that asks you directly or not so directly to go out and find a competing offer just to be in negotiations about your compensation, that relationship is not one based on mutual value. Your raise, should you get one this way, will be solely based on a number out there in the market, not on truly seeing and appreciating your value. Consider carefully how you can you grow and rise when your value is so arbitrarily assigned.
In the end, if you don’t set your value, it will be set for you by the opinions of others.
If you don’t speak about your value, you will settle for what others have to say about it.
If you don’t demonstrate your value to your company, they will underestimate you.
If you don’t determine your own value, you’ll end up adopting the value of the dominant culture—with all its biases—just to fit in or feel safe.
And if you don’t manage your career, who will?
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive my newsletter directly in your inbox, please sign up here.