The Commodity Marketplace for Employees

The Commodity Marketplace for EmployeesThere is a plethora of articles and books out there about how difficult it is to be in a commodity business. Books like “Blue Ocean Strategy” talk about it in terms of swimming away from the red ocean to the blue ocean, or that the blood of fierce competition in a commodity marketplace has turned the ocean red.

Innovation is such a hot topic right now because an increasing number of industries that used to be places where differentiation existed, have suddenly turned into commodity industries. When differences between the offerings of different companies become small, competition increasingly turns to price, and the product is commoditized. The customer becomes ambivalent about which offering they choose – there are a number of choices good enough for their purposes.

Why don’t we see the same plethora of articles and books out there about Personal Innovation?

Ah, but you might say the marketplace is full of self-help and personal growth books. Yes, but Personal Innovation is about more than personal growth. Personal Innovation is about self-transformation and in the employee context, about creating a strategy for swimming away from the red ocean.

Yes, if you choose to be an employee you are choosing to swim in the red ocean. The employee marketplace is an incredibly commoditized industry. A System Administrator job pays x, a Bookkeeper job pays y. Have you ever heard this before – “I’d love to give you a raise, but you’re already at the top of the salary range (aka salary band)”?Or maybe you’ve heard this one – “We think you’re the best person for the job, but the money you’re asking for…nobody in that role makes that much.”

Despite what some people may tell you, the employee marketplace has little room for value-based selling (especially after you are in the door). The Human Resources department in the same way as the Purchasing department, has made sure that every “product” purchased has an approved price. Want to buy a photocopier? It can’t cost more than x. Want to hire a finance manager? You can’t pay them more than y.

Continuing with our photocopier example, employees who don’t know their own value ruin the marketplace for employees who do in the same manner that companies willing to sell their photocopiers for thin or negative margins to build market share ruin the marketplace for other copier companies. So what is an employee to do?

Unionization is one way that employees can improve their lot, but it has its own set of problems in that “stars” or extraordinarily high performers have no way to make above average income on their above exceptional contribution.

Professional athletes are probably the only set of employees that have managed to guarantee themselves a high level of minimum compensation and benefits without eliminating the possibility of stars to earn much more. Professional services (lawyers, consultants, CPA’s, etc.), venture capital, and private equity firms with a partner structure offer the potential for “star” compensation, but “stars” are defined not by ability to do the job but their ability to bring in business.

Professional Services independents have the opportunity to generate “star” earnings as well, but again this has more to do with the professional’s ability to create business, although it is more closely linked to at least their perceived ability.

So where does this leave the average employee?

In today’s reality, if you are a “star” your best investment will be to build yourself into an industry expert within the confines of your existing employment. This is where Personal Innovation comes in. You have to determine how you can achieve differentiation and competitive separation from your peers. First you have to determine why you are a “star” and they are not, and how you can prove to the world that you are a “star” and deserve to be compensated outside the traditional salary range. Creating a “star” quality is all about proving in a tangible way that you deliver extraordinary value beyond that of other employees, and showing that you deserve to be treated differently. It’s not good enough to be a strong performer, or the best performer. You must achieve competitive separation and differentiation from your peers.

This can be achieved through the continuous pursuit of industry education, improvement of your public speaking and writing skills, creation of an industy blog, and volunteering to represent your company as a speaker at industry conferences and trade shows. The industry blog and public speaking engagements will expand the perception as a “star” beyond the bounds of your organization. If you combine these efforts with other publishing efforts like magazine or journal articles and possibly even a book, and you will expand your reach even farther and faster. You do need to have something unique and useful to say however, which is why the continuing education is so important. Doing all of these things will not only potentially improve your ability to do your existing job, but will also increase the possibility that another company will become interested in you.

Let’s face it, the best hope you have of getting better compensation is to move on to a different company (otherwise you are limited by your salary range) or start your own. If you do manage to get another company interested in you enough to try and entice you away, make sure first that it is not just to be their employee, but that they are recognizing that you are a “star” coming in and need to be compensated in an appropriate manner. CXO’s typically manage to negotiate in this way, as do some VP’s (particularly Sales VP’s). For a “star”, being compensated in an appropriate manner means of course a high base salary, but more importantly it means a package that includes things like signing bonuses and a large opportunity to earn via incentive-based compensation and stock options or awards. Negotiating this kind of package is difficult to achieve unless you have risen to the top of the organizational hierarchy and is the reason that most true “stars” end up starting their own company, even if initially it only provides an auxiliary source of income.

So if you believe you have that “star” quality, hopefully your mind is churning out ways that you are going to achieve that competitive separation and differentiation from your peers. If you pursue Personal Innovation with the same or greater gusto than you pursue product or service innovations for your current employer, I’m sure you will find a way to swim away from the bloody waters of the commodity mentality that is the traditional employee marketplace.

It will require unwavering commitment and determination, but those are qualities that all “stars” have. Personally, I am swimming as fast as I can, but I recognize that it is a difficult journey with an uncertain length. I hope you will join me on this journey. Do you have what it takes to be a “star”?

What do you think?

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One thought on “The Commodity Marketplace for Employees

  1. Pingback: Personal Innovation – Shine Your Star | Human-Centered Change and Innovation

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