Book Review: ‘Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius,’ by H.V. MacArthur

New book sets out to shake up the stereotypical employer-employee power dynamic that hijacks control of our careers.

Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius, by career expert and business strategist H.V. MacArthur, is a wake-up call to the jaded employee in us all. If you’re dragging your feet to work each day, feel like climbing the walls to escape apathetic coworkers, or are hanging on for that elusive promotion or pay bump, you’ve forgotten one crucial fact, warns MacArthur. Your boss isn’t in the driver’s seat of your career. Neither is your manager. You  are.

Low Man on the Totem Pole sets out to shake up the stereotypical employer-employee power dynamic that hijacks control of our careers. When you shed your employee skin and view yourself as a business owner instead—with your employer assuming the role of the client—everything changes, explains MacArthur. The “I’m a hard worker and deserve it” mentality you have as an employee? It’s replaced with the mindset of a consultant as you find yourself saying, “Here’s how I can help.” Those nasty grudges you hold against your boss or company? They quickly dissipate, says MacArthur, once you view your employer as a paying  client.

It’s a compelling argument, and one that MacArthur weaves throughout the book. Part straight talk, part autobiography, Low Man on the Totem Pole comes across as no-nonsense but relatable. After all, MacArthur was once a disillusioned employee herself. Much of the advice in the book stems from MacArthur’s varied career experiences: from her military service, to her work as a linguist in the National Security Agency, followed by corporate roles and her career as a coach and consultant to Fortune 500  companies.

The book is divided into five parts, each of which guides readers through various attitude shifts: shifting to a business owner’s mindset, prioritizing a career that aligns with your life’s purpose, and working past conflicts and workplace barriers. The book ends with a section for veterans that, for regular readers, is a helpful reminder to pay it  forward.

MacArthur’s advice tends to hit home, no matter where you are in your career journey. For example, early in the book, MacArthur jumps right in to challenge how we view change. Change, argues MacArthur, isn’t an event. Thanks to corporate reorganizations, change—and being able to roll with it—has become a mandatory skill. Those pink slips we all dread? MacArthur contends they are silver linings. They open up opportunities for us to play the field a bit, to diversify our skills, gain new experiences, and qualify for jobs based more on talent than time in  service.

MacArthur points out a variety of workplace norms that no longer benefit employees. For instance, she lays out why “looking good for the boss” sabotages work performance. She gives readers a reality check by showing us how we overvalue what we do best. And she redirects our career trajectories by demonstrating how climbing the corporate ladder often works against our best interests. Her advice certainly bucks traditional conventions, but, upon closer inspection, Low Man on the Totem Pole conveys a truth that will help anyone in today’s business  world.

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