Stick Your Head Out to Avoid the Chopping Block


When you’re straight out of school, you do a lot of things that you don’t do when you have a few years of experience. That happens because you’re not fully aware of the impact your actions may have. Sometimes, doing things because you’re too dumb to know better is a bad thing. And sometimes, it’s a good thing.

I started my career in a booming industry that was about six months away from an enormous bubble. I went straight from business school to an environment where just keeping up was a massive challenge. The days flew by. Then the bubble happened. Suddenly, the days didn’t fly by any more. Instead, they seemed to drag on for an eternity. Soon the waves of layoffs began. People lost their jobs by the dozens. We started talking about who might go next. The advice of all the veterans was simple: “Keep a low profile.” That way, everyone reasoned, you’ll keep your job longer.

At around this time, I came up with a fun little project that I thought could help the company. I told some of the veterans about my idea. They all advised me against pursuing it. “Don’t draw any attention to yourself!” they all warned me. “What happens if it doesn’t work?” As a young, dumb, inexperienced junior, I didn’t really understand what they meant. Why wouldn’t they like an idea that had potential? And how could someone keep a low profile in company, anyway? Did they really think management would “forget” they were there if they simply punched in and out as quietly as possible?

I decided to do the project anyway and when I finished it, I presented the results to my boss. He liked it. Then I was invited to present the project to the company owner. He liked it even more. As he thanked me for having initiated the project, he told me he was also disappointed that other people hadn’t shown the same kind of initiative.

Guess what? I didn’t get laid off from that job. In fact, I stuck around for another few years. Some of those veterans, however, got the boot. I even overheard a few comments like, “What did you expect? [Insert name] wasn’t really doing anything anyway.” So much for keeping a low profile, I guess.

The moral of the story here is simple and I’m sure you clued into it already: you don’t keep your job in tough times—or move up the ladder in good times—by avoiding something. You keep your job and move up by doing something. I realized that the first time by being too stupid to know better. I continue following that practice because now I’m smart enough to know what makes a difference. It’s never a good time to keep quiet. It’s always a good time to do something worth doing.

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