OMAHA, NE - Well, it's here: Warren Buffett's annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. While you can read for yourselves Mr. Buffett's sober predictions of the economy being "in shambles throughout 2009 - and, for that matter, probably well beyond," job seekers can learn something about how to create real value for their current and potential employers -- now and forever.

It's no secret that stocks took a severe beating last year, and Mr. Buffett's Berkshire holdings were not immune. Yet according to Mr. Buffett, "In good years and bad, Charlie Munger [his long-time business partner] and I simply focus on four goals:

  1. maintaining our company's Gibraltar-like financial position, which features huge amounts of excess liquidity, near-term obligations that are modest, and dozens of sources of earnings and cash;

  2. widening the "moats" around our operating businesses that give them durable competitive advantages;

  3. acquiring and developing new and varied streams of earnings;

  4. expanding and nurturing the cadre of outstanding operating managers who, over the years, have delivered Berkshire exceptional results.

The proof of this approach is in the pudding: Over the last 44 years, Berkshire Hathaway's book value per share has grown from $19 to $70,530, a rate of 20.3% compounded annually.
Question for you job seekers: Specifically, HOW have you done these four things in your previous jobs? Can you quantify your contribution in each of these four areas?
You are making a terrible mistake if you think these things are "too high level and abstract" for you to impact! Over the last five years, I have made a small fortune pulling executives out of Dell Computer.
Why Dell? Because a long time ago, Michael Dell was smart enough to tie every Dell employee's bonus to Return on Invested Capital (ROIC) -- the single metric that mattered most to Dell's customers, and therefore, to its stock holders. By aligning his employee's behavior to the expectations of his customers and stock holders, Mr. Dell created a perpetual motion machine fueled by the self-interests of every single stakeholder. That's not a bad thing. That's a great thing!
According to Mr. Dell's book Direct from Dell [which I strongly endorse] ...
ROIC became a focusing device. We introduced it in 1995 with a company-wide push to educate everyone about the benefits of a positive ROIC, with articles in the company newsletter, posters, talks by managers, and "Messages from Michael" devoted to the topic.
We explained specifically how everyone could contribute: by reducing cycle times, eliminating scrap and waste, selling more, forecasting accurately, scaling operating expenses, increasing inventory turns, collecting accounts receivables efficiently, and doing things right the first time. And we make it the core of our incentive program for all employees.
We decided to to reward employees around a matrix of ROIC and growth and higher performance directly attributed to higher ROIC -- which came back in the form of higher compensation.

BOTTOM LINE: Dell executives know how to create value for ALL company stakeholders -- both internally and externally, up and down the value chain -- and that's what today's employment market will pay for. That's what it needs now more than ever! You can stick a Dell executive in just about any company and they will find a way to organize their teams and activities around those things which create value. Clients LOVE this trait, and I have the check stubs to prove it.
So candidates, here is one job search rule that you must obey:
Your value to employers has to be obvious. It has to be easy to explain, understand, and verify. Trust me, business owners are scared to death. They are afraid of President Obama's approach to taxation, and they have NO idea whether the business environment will recover this year ... or the next ... or ever. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt dominate the current climate. Business owners have a bunker mentality.
Accordingly, you MUST make business owners understand why they are better off investing their hard earned cash in YOU rather than keeping it under a mattress.
You are at great risk if you fight me on this one. This is the new reality. It's a cold as hell world out there, and whether you work for a company or not, you are in business for yourself. It's time you started thinking of yourself as someone else's investment.

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1 Job Search Rule: Obey

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Harry Joiner is an executive recruiter specializing in integrated marketing and "new media." He has been featured in MarketingSherpa's Great Minds in Marketing series and received coverage in the Wall Street Journal's Career Journal Online. According to Viral Garden's weekly rankings, Harry's weblog is one of the top 25 marketing weblogs in the world.