I had a drink with my good friend Chris Lochhead recently and he told me how a CEO he worked with used to ask "Why do we need all these people?" It's a good question for a CEO to ask every once in a while. What are all these people doing - and is it necessary? Can we get along with fewer people? Should we be outsourcing more? What should you do if the boss comes around wondering whether your job is necessary?
I can't think of a time when I worked at a place with the 'right' number of employees. A growing company is always hiring, which means that they need employees. A shrinking company wants to shed employees. Even at a company which is more or less stable, workers quit, get fired, or retire. If a company feels that it's got the right number of employees, that's true only for the present. Any time in the future, they could have too many or too few. So companies have to be continually evaluating whether to gain or lose employees.
A company whose business is shrinking will usually tolerate some unnecessary employees for a while, especially if the cost of hiring and training a new employee is high. Or maybe the business is seasonal and it's cheaper to keep people hired during the down time so they will be there when you need them. And some companies - particularly large ones - don't have a good idea of who is doing a productive, necessary job. But whether a company is growing or shrinking, eventually the cost of keeping unproductive employees is going to outweigh the cost to hire new ones, and out they go.
So for you, it's not enough just to be doing a good job. You have to be doing a useful, important job. At any point, someone could ask "What is that guy doing? Can we get along without him?" You need to be prepared. You need to make yourself indispensable. There are a couple of ways to do that. The wrong way is to not let anyone else know how to do what you do. Like the salesperson who won't share sales collateral or pitches. This only works for a while. Sure, your successes will be noticed, but so will the fact that you're a jerk and have your own interests ahead of the company.
You need to ask yourself whether what you do is important to the company's success, so you better understand what is important to the company. What are the current strategic and tactical challenges? Is it better customer service, faster product development, tighter cost control, hiring, geographic expansion, or - most likely - combination of these and other things? How directly does what you do relate to those goals? I'm not saying that everyone has to be in product development or sales (if those are the key areas), but you should be able to make the case that you are at least supporting the important objectives. If what you do isn't important, what can you do to change it? Is there anything obvious that you should (or shouldn't) be doing that makes the job more relevant? Can you have a dialog with your boss along the lines of "I'm not sure that what I'm doing is essential to the company. What do you think?" If your boss is unhelpful, can you move into a different department closer to the action? It pretty much comes down to changing the job you have, or changing jobs.
Even in a strategic, important job don't forget to increase your skills and expertise. Don't pass up opportunities for training, especially at your employer's expense. Employers will be less likely to fire employees they've invested in. If your employer won't pay, you'll have to do it yourself. If you're in a technical field like software development, this is essential. But there are technologies and techniques in everything from accounting to HR to marketing you need to learn, if that's where you work.
Yes, it's uncomfortable to rock the boat if you are in an undemanding job. Maybe you're hoping that you can just stay unnoticed. Trust me, if you think your job is irrelevant, someone else is going to find out sooner or later. These days any non-essential job will eventually draw attention. If you want to stay employed, you're going to have to be proactive about ensuring your relevance and importance.
So what will you say if the CEO asks you "Do we really need to have someone doing your job?"