Does your work add to the bottom line – and how do you know?

Does your work add to the bottom line – and how do you know?

I was talking to Rick Landman the other day. He spotted a quote of mine in a Chicago Tribune story, tracked me down in New York and I asked him about the state of the search business.
Landman is a well-known Midwest networker and search professional. He said: “Things are excellent. The job market is definitely on an uptick. I am specializing now in key jobs that affect the bottom line, which could include certain sales positions, operations roles, product development and other critical functions.”
It’s good to hear that companies have a lens for evaluating positions in terms of their contribution to the bottom line and not just sales positions. This conversation got me thinking: How much do we – as Midwest tech industry employees – think about the connections between our individual contributions and the company’s profitability?
The bigger the company, the easier it often is to lose track of this vital connection. Compensation professionals like to talk about the clear link between an employee’s efforts and his or her financial rewards. They call this the “line of sight”.
For instance, a salesperson who receives a commission on every sale (plus, let’s say, a kicker that increases his commission once a certain threshold is reached) can really see how his pay and his work are aligned. Comp people say: “People will do what they’re rewarded to do.”
While that’s a good way to plan a comp package, what about the other line of sight: the one between each worker’s output and the company’s results?
No matter what your position is, you should have a concrete understanding of how your work makes the company more financially successful (rather than, for instance, simply more organized, in possession of better-looking marketing materials or more prepared for a sudden leadership-team resignation by virtue of your brand-new management succession plan).
This is a tough idea for some Midwest tech employees to grasp. No longer can you rely on your boss or his boss to ensure that the work you’re doing is inextricably tied to the company’s fortunes. It may just not be the case. You have to look out for your own connection to the bottom line and strengthen it whenever and however you can.
But you may protest: “If I’m told to do something – even if I think it’s random or pointless – I still have to do it. I don’t have the luxury of ensuring that it’s closely tied to the company’s goals.”
I would argue that point with you. Someone who assigned you the work has an idea of why the task is worth doing. Keep asking questions until you know why, too. If you determine over time that the work you’re doing is truly non-essential, that’s a huge red flag that should get you looking at other opportunities.
Let me give you some recent examples of shaky lines of sight that scared me. These three Midwest tech professionals are excited about their work, but should the need arise, it’s not clear that any of them could make the case that their work is tied to the company’s goals.

Case one

Me: So, Samantha, what have you been working on lately?
She: I’m so pumped! We just launched our new e-learning program for the sales reps. It’s a wicked cool application with amazing graphics and the content is spectacular. We spent a year putting it together on a shoestring. We only spent $60,000.
Me: Awesome! What are the deliverables associated with this launch? What sorts of metrics are you using to evaluate it?
She: The salespeople who have tried it so far absolutely love it. It’s so much easier to learn product information and sales techniques online than to sit in a classroom.
Me: Good news. Do you see this launch affecting sales results, per-salesperson profitability or what?
She: Well, probably. I’m mostly just involved on the technical side.

Case two

He: I am over the moon. I just got approval to hire two more PC techs. Our users have been screaming for support.
Me: Wonderful news! What sorts of user issues are these folks solving?
He: The usual stuff: people get hung up, they can’t print or they lose files.
Me: So there’s a cost associated with your employees being offline or having these other problems that you can whittle down with good support?
He: Well, the phone just rings and rings and we haven’t had enough techs to cover.
Oh dear.

Case Three

She: I swear, Liz, I love my boss! He’s the best CEO I’ve ever worked for.
Me: Why?
She: He’s letting me launch a diversity initiative. This is the best. We have needed this program forever.
Me: Why?
She: All the best companies are doing it. We need to reach out to minorities and women and other populations.
Me: Great news! Um, why?
She: We are going to launch a Web site and do some lunch speaker programs and…
You get my drift. Yes, e-learning initiatives, enhanced help-desk support and diversity programs are wonderful business initiatives that make tons of economic and cultural sense, but you must be able to show how that happens.
People who rely on “my boss gave me permission,” “it’ll be great in the long run” and other bromides without having any clear understanding of how their work moves the company forward hurt themselves and their employers in three ways:
1. They spend company dollars and other limited resources – management bandwidth, employee mindshare, supplies and facilities – on initiatives that may or may not get the company closer to meeting its goals. Just to lay a possible guilt trip on you, using resources in unmindful ways not only doesn’t move the company ahead but it actually slows you down.
2. They use their own time (and remember, an employee’s time – specifically the way their time is allocated at work – is about the only thing an employee has to invest in his later career) on initiatives that may succeed, may fail and may hurt their own resumes.
How so? If all you can say on your next job interview is “I worked on this and I worked on that” without being able to point to the company’s advantage that has been derived from your efforts, you don’t make a compelling new-hire candidate.
3. Lastly, people who work on things that are merely fun, merely approved or merely assigned to them without understanding the bottom-line connection dig themselves into a mindset that says one’s work can be disconnected from the organization’s imperatives. This is a sad and dangerous conception.
You hear people say things like: “Oh, the company is all over this expansion into the Asian market, but luckily I can steer clear of all that and focus on my database integration.” Steering clear of the company’s big targets is never smart for you or your company.
Am I suggesting that every move you make, every e-mail you write and every corporate breath you take must be financially oriented? Absolutely not. I’m an HR person. I understand the value of building a healthy culture, inspiring a vision and lots of other wonderful, soft and change-agent goals (even in the most hardcore techie environments).
Maybe these kinds of initiatives are even more critical in hyper-quant workplaces, but even in these cases, the person working on culture change, leadership training or another goal not likely to show up on the balance sheet must know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
They must know how this work – whether it’s launching a mentoring initiative or changing the Pantone colors in the logo – will get the company a step closer to its larger goals. Often this link comes in the form of an “if not” statement: If not for this necessary innovation, compensation program revision, timely new product launch, change in the credit policy or this new carpeting in the company’s break room, we will face “x,” “y” and “z” problems.
Like they said in the 1960s (so they say; I was playing Barbies at the time): If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.