Last time we talked about how to help your brain embrace change. This time, we will dive into how changing your perception of your job can lead to previously undiscovered areas of career development.

Some years ago my team and I were asked to work with a local chain of restaurants to help boost server productivity. We took a look at which servers got the best tips, as well as those who drummed up the biggest sales. We saw a lot of what we expected to see. The best servers were warm and considerate. They were not rushed, and did a great job recommending sides and desserts that customers may have otherwise passed over.

There were a number of effective servers, and we were able to learn a lot from them. Then we were introduced to the restaurant’s one true star: Valerie. Valerie worked in a way that was unique, earning her far higher tips than any other server at the restaurant chain. How did she do it?

This is Valerie’s story.

?It is so easy to fall into the box of our own job descriptions. We read our list of responsibilities, we do them, and we assume that’s all we need to move forward in our career development. And so we float down our little career river, waiting for the promotion that will surely come because we are doing what our job description says. A job like Valerie’s is especially susceptible to such thinking, for the job description is dangerously simple: serve food.

Valerie viewed her work differently. When we sat down with her she said, “I don’t see myself as an employee of the restaurant. I see myself as an independent contractor who is leasing tables from the restaurant. The customers who sit at my tables aren’t the restaurant’s customers; they are mine. The restaurant is not my employer, but one of my customers. Basically, I see myself as a one-person business, and act accordingly.”

That small shift in perception makes a world of difference. From further conversation with Valerie we uncovered three lessons in career success that can be applied to any job and lead to further career development no matter your current position:

  1. We are a one-person company. From here on out, we throw away the idea that we are an employee. We are an independent contractor, and our current employer happens to be our biggest customer. As such, all of our success in our career is on our shoulders. We are the CEO, with complete control over the strategic direction of our company. We get to decide how best our company can add value to our customer?our employer. We are our own Human Resources department, so we need to make sure we have the skills necessary to succeed, and constantly develop new skills that allow us to outshine the competition. We are our own Research and Development department, identifying opportunities in the market and discovering how to capitalize on new ways of doing things. Our successes and failures are entirely in our hands.
  2. Our employer is our customer. If we really take this idea to heart, it means we need to make sure we are serving our customer better than our competitors?i.e., other employees. To do this, we cannot simply do what our customer asks. Anyone can meet a customer’s spoken needs. If they say, “I’d like more rolls,” and we bring more rolls to the table, we have done nothing to place ourselves above the competition. Instead we must meet our customers unspoken needs. We must know them better than they know themselves. Steve Jobs, founder and former CEO of Apple, was particularly skilled at this. When Apple first created the iPod, no one was asking for it. No one wanted an expensive brick that held more songs than a person could possibly listen to in a day, and when it was first released the reviews were tepid at best. Yet before long the iPod became the bestselling product in Apple’s history, because Steve knew his customers. He knew what they wanted before they knew themselves. In less than a decade Steve did it again, releasing the iPhone to middling reviews and an uncaring world who never asked for such a thing, (A phone you have to charge every night?! Ridiculous!) Smartphones are so ubiquitous now that many of us can’t imagine life without one; we forgot that when it was first released, it was met with more yawns than cheers. But thanks in large part to the iPhone, Apple went from being a small, niche computer company to the most valuable company in history. All because they figured out what we wanted before we did.
  3. We must break free of the box of job descriptions. We can bet Valerie’s server job description was not particularly inspiring. We do not want to fall into the trap of simply doing what we are told. In even the most routine jobs, star performers can find ways to do things no one has done before. There was nothing in Valerie’s job description about giving each table a glance every 60 seconds to spot customers’ needs, but that’s what she did, and so she was able to respond to her customers much more quickly than any other server. There was nothing in the job description about tasting every meal, every appetizer, every dessert, and thinking of ways to effectively describe each item. But that’s what Valerie did, so she could make recommendations that satisfied customers better than the half-baked recommendations of the other servers. Neither the best performers nor the worst performers stick to the job description. Only average performers do that.

I learned more about career development from Valerie the server than I have from any other person. Instead of simply doing her job, she put careful thought into everything she did, and how she could do it better. She took charge of her own career, rather than waiting for the restaurant to take charge of it for her, and she was well rewarded?financially and otherwise?for her efforts. May we all find the same success.

For Your Consideration

  1. Think about your current customer (your employer). What are their unspoken needs? How could you better meet those needs?
  2. Your current employer is not your only customer. In your current position, who else (like your boss) would you consider a customer? How can you meet their unspoken needs?
  3. Write down a list of the key positions in your one-person company (CEO, HR Director, Marketing, etc.). What can you do to effectively fill each of those positions?