An overlooked threat to the economy and your career
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
Stop keeping secrets.
You learn early in your career that you have to show, not tell.
A new employer or a new client wants to see hard evidence that you can do the job and do it well. You have to show them that you can do it, not just tell them that you can.
But how can you do that if all the evidence of your talents and abilities is locked away in some other company's files?
If you've entrusted complete ownership of your best and brightest work to previous employers and clients, you have a real problem.
Your work isn't just your calling card. It's your best reference. It's your personal proof-of-concept.
If no one can see it or hear it, it might as well not even exist.
That's why confidentiality is an enormous threat to your credibility, your career, and even the economy. Confidentiality kills innovation, and anything that hurts innovation costs everyone because innovation powers the productivity that creates economic growth.
Often, as we're starting our careers in entry-level jobs in organizations with well-defined processes, we're tempted to think that they own our work as well as our time. They give us a workstation, they pay us for what we do, and we go home at the end of the day and leave everything that we did behind.
But far too many people hold onto that outlook long after it makes sense to.
Even after we start coming up with better ways of doing things -- solving problems on our own time -- we hesitate to take the credit we deserve.
We think we're doing a good enough job at managing our careers by climbing ladders and getting promotions, hardly pausing a moment if we're asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement as we navigate a transition.
But what we really should be doing is curating our work as though we were living, breathing museums - - maintaining a collection of artifacts that we can proudly submit to inspection on demand.
Artists, graphic designers, and music composers figure this out earlier than most. They can flip through their portfolio and guide a client through their professional journey. When they accept a commission, they rarely if ever sell the rights to their creation outright.
I learned this when I developed a software routine that helped my client figure out where they should open pop-up retail outlets. My program took their in-house sales data and spit out a calculation of exactly where and when they should open a store.
It was a real-time model of economic supply and demand across their market - something they had never done before or even thought about doing before.
I was more than happy to give them complete ownership of the model run, but I insisted on keeping ownership of the model itself, which was full of complicated equations and crazy macros. After all, I had designed and developed the model on my own time and at my own expense, and I saw how it could be adapted for use in other industries and for other business opportunities that had nothing to do with my client.
It's like owning a restaurant. You own the table and the dishes and the silverware. You offer your customer a seat at the table. They buy a meal.
So what can you do to maintain ownership of your portfolio?
1. Recognize that you're an innovator.
Even if you're in a field or industry that's not typically seen as cutting-edge, acknowledge your own creativity.
Everyone's an innovator now, called upon to do new things with new tools that didn't even exist a few years ago or even a few months ago.
Even if you didn't write the application yourself, there's a good chance you're using it in a way that nobody has used it before.
2. Realize that you have more leverage than you think you do.
There's always a war for the best talent, even in the toughest economic times. Don't sign a non-disclosure or non-compete agreement if you don't have to.
Or, at the very least, get good legal advice before doing so.
You may already have access to a legal plan through your employer. Use it.
If not, hire a lawyer yourself. Some people think lawyers are expensive. But they're actually dirt cheap once you realize that a good lawyer can save you big by helping you protect your rights to your intellectual property.
3. Whatever you agree to, get it in writing.
Agree to confidentiality only when it really makes sense.
Don't leave your assumptions about what's yours and what's theirs to chance. If you're selling eggs, make sure you keep the chicken. If you're selling chickens, make sure you keep the farm.
Again, a good lawyer can help you spell that out.
In the long run, confidentiality or secrecy of any kind is rarely good for business.
If you can't talk accurately about what work you're doing, you can't create real value.
No one else will be able to collaborate with you. You'll miss out on the context and perspective they can offer, so you won't be able to learn and grow, and neither will your business.
You'll cut yourself off from the collaboration that's one of the key drivers of innovation. As science writer Steven Johnson puts it, "Chance favors the connected mind."
There should be no secrets about your work, just as there should be no secrets about who you really are.