Talent management needs a new paradigm to better serve people hardwired to be loyal followers.
Resumes are for the young and the introverted.
And while I fall into that latter camp, I got to Big without one. I took the road more traveled, following the career aspirations of someone for whom I'd worked previously.
Following that leader wasn't a sign of naivete or selflessness on my part or of any lack of ambition. It was comfort food, a warm and savory choice that gently reaffirmed my tendencies: a stereotypical mix of nerdy introspection and extreme loyalty.
The obvious problem with my choice, and it's one shared across nerdom, is that the safety of followership lulls us even further into neglecting our own networks. We fail to build and deepen our own relationships across the industry (and industries) and instead let our leaders play politics while we play loyal builders -- heads down and focused on execution.
But loyalty is the most complex of virtues, and as a quality in followers it deserves more and better than it gets. Leaders are profoundly unworthy of it, which is why introverts (and maybe even extroverts) need a better model for the IT career lifecycle, especially if they aspire to reach the corner office.
What follows is an analysis of loyalty in the context of business and leadership, and a proposal for a new loyalty model for tech and executive recruiting.
Loyalty On Its Deathbed
Our larger culture's lament about the death of loyalty has focused almost exclusively on the loss of economic stability: the idea that we can no longer trade in our lives for a gold watch and a pension. But work was never just about the money. Companies were, and in their finer moments still are, an invaluable source of identity and meaning.
The adult version of Mom's "you are what you eat" is -- somewhat regrettably -- "you are what you do." Where you spend your time defines who you are. And that has become spiritually catastrophic. Because as wages have stagnated over the last 40 years and the middle class has become the underclass, where we spend most of our time is at work. Both spouses. And if you're far enough down the totem pole, each spouse with more than one job.
With work consuming that much of our lives, it should surprise no one when our careers become our default identity. And that's the right light in which to view the deterioration of bedrock institutions such as church and family. Who has the time? Or any identity left for them to define?
In that context, the unconscionable failing of business hasn't been its shipping of jobs overseas, but its inability to foster the kind of values that would never let the jobs go in the first place. Business leaders have failed to tie value creation to actual values, leaving what little identity we have left bereft of depth, substance, meaning.
Pretty mission statements mock the idea of business as a source of real, shared values. Because the goal of business isn't to produce both meaning and profits. Just profits. Its goal isn't to foster a real sense of community. Just enough of it to keep employees shackled. Because the loss of employee loyalty is a cost, an inefficiency, some ethereal notion that needs executive attention or a best practice or a center of excellence or whatever cynical managerial process we throw at it so we can improve our retention ratios.
Outrage is too mild a reaction. What most businesses need are subversive executives colluding with bottom-up workplace activists. We need to get comfortable with the verb "foment."
Suffice it to say that the vacuum that was created when our fathers and pioneering mothers justifiably stopped being loyal to their employers wasn't simply economic. It was social, psychological, cultural, even moral. And it was driven by our larger need for identity and meaning.
Loyalty Is Dead. Long Live Loyalty.
The hole left by the loss of loyalty-to-company has left us with two equally destructive alternatives: loyalty-to-leadership and loyalty-to-self/career.
The first is the path I chose: Lasso a shooting star and hold on to yer britches; charisma as a replacement for meaning. Not unlike Scientology.
The problem with this kind of followership is that most of us don't realize that we project our own loyalty onto the leaders we follow. And that leaves us somewhere between disappointed and devastated when they don't make the same decisions that we would, when they don't value the relationship in quite the same way.
To be fair, followers do tend to forget that leaders are human, fragile and have their own mortgages. The sobering reality, though, is that loyalty isn't always met with loyalty, especially when self-preservation is the other choice.
And the heartbreaking truth about this first alternative is that unless you’re living a black swan scenario -- following the kind of phenom that comes every millennium or two – loyalty-to-leadership is a one-way street.
The second alternative to loyalty-to-company is a rethinking of what it means to be employed, a rewriting of the social contract to be about trading fidelity for growth, interesting deliverables for learning opportunities, money for world-class resume filler that can be traded up regularly for more money and better resume filler.
Our friends at hbr.org describe things this way: "The organization will provide interesting and challenging work. The individual will invest discretionary effort in the task and produce relevant results. When one or both sides of this equation are no longer possible (for whatever reasons) the relationship will end."
The author actually calls it "the basis of trust between corporations and workers for the decades ahead" -- which is sad. First, because what she describes has nothing to do with the words loyalty or trust as you or I define them. Second, because as an aspiration "for the decades ahead" it lacks imagination. Third and most damning, because the whole idea is a deceptively perky repackaging of at-will employment, the kind you'd expect from a seemingly sweet HR exec suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
Modern employment is a complex and troubled marriage, rife with uneven power dynamics. At-will employment is codified spousal abuse. And to frame it like it's Tomorrowland is another reason hbr.org deserves a DDoS attack.
A Yellow Wood
Internal mobility is for suckers! I wish someone had told me that when I was young. It's the illusion of choice from an institution that doesn't have your best interests in mind. I don't care how well-intentioned your manager is or how caring and authentic that HR rep seems. The next time that you hear those two comforting words, visualize Kathy Bates and prepare for a hobbling.
So of the three candidates for loyalty, this first one, loyalty-to-company, is a non-starter.
The second and third -- loyalty-to-leader and to self -- are only slightly less problematic. Jumping to a different company just to work for someone you've worked for previously is like divorcing your spouse and marrying her clone.
Flying from interesting job to interesting job to look for challenging work and learning opportunities is admirable, but it sends a strong signal to future employers that you might be amazing, adventurous, a real rock star but aren't worth investing in for the long term.
Talent clearly needs -- I'd even say deserves -- a fourth choice. This has stopped being about Frost's "road not taken." We need a new path that plows through the damn woods.
I don't have the complete answer, but your next career jump needs to start with a person or institution that is:
1) outside your current company's context.
2) knows you well enough to sell you -- and I mean the real you.
3) represents your financial interest over that of your future employer's.
4) is thinking about your career's long-term horizon.
Most recruiters provide No. 1. The best ones add No. 2. The clever ones will tell you that they address No. 3 because they get a percentage of your salary, which means they make more when you make more. (Never trust the clever ones!)
As for No. 4, if you're a recruiter in the existing paradigm, why would you jeopardize the only relationship that currently pays your bills, i.e., the one you have with the hiring corporation? It's madness. There's no legitimate placement service out there that represents the gifted hacker or the hands-on tech exec who's open to new challenges, new industries.
How is the current model for recruiting not a massive conflict of interest? Searches for top talent are driven exclusively by companies. It's like being in the most expensive real estate purchase of your life and having to fall backward into the arms of the seller's broker.
Our exploration for a better model for talent management should look to the sports and entertainment industries for inspiration. There, you'll find managers and agents who stay with talent for the long haul. And we should look at talent management as an ecosystem, the way a scout starts with the young baseball player and hands him off to a manager who specializes in maturing young talent.
We certainly have superstars in tech. We just lack the Jerry Maguires: the nurturing super-connectors who care even more about the relationship after the placement is made and the percentages are paid.
It's time hackers had advocates in their corner, not the employer's. Protection against the power imbalance. An unbiased and motivated supporter who could guide them from task to task, job to job, industry to industry, with the long view.
Epilogue: The Last Gasp
I just reread this midnight rant and I'm so very obviously thinking about leaving Big. There's no sordid backstory. No drama. It all ties back to issues of identity and meaning.
The unspoken truth is that I dread being identified socially with this brand, this Wal-Mart of financial services. Not because it's evil, mind you. But because its culture is like an aging dictator, proud of the order he's wrought and oblivious to the suffering.
Social events in my personal life drain my battery even more now because of that inevitable question strangers seem hardwired to ask. My stock answer to "Where do you work?" has become, "In my head, mostly." And then -- very Gary Larson-esque -- I drop to the floor and feign death until they walk away.
Or at least I do in my head.
I'll start the process tomorrow: Update the resume (the first time in 12 years) and send out feelers to old friends with the shameful starting line of "Hey, it's been awhile."
I'll even upgrade to LinkedIn Pro, the career equivalent of buying a lottery ticket.
That's the best part of cathartic writing. Thanks to this process, I'm done with loyalty-to-company and -leadership. I'm going to try out loyalty-to-career for a change, even though in the financial services sector the path of followership generally isn't career suicide. Enough of us are lemmings here that the ones who aren't understand and even forgive the weakness, hiring with the hopes of growing their own herd.
If there were a fourth option, a path through the yellow wood, I'd certainly try it. The air would be clean, the view breathtaking and the company invaluable.