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What Should Replace Loyalty To Company?

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.

[ Does your company seek to innovate? Read Innovation Is Executive Porn. ]

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.

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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.

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User Rank: Author
10/16/2013 | 7:03:07 PM
re: What Should Replace Loyalty To Company?
Who said the mentor "stole" me? I am talking about the power of introductions. You can meet mentors through professional and alumni organizations who will never steal you, but can advise you and connect you.
Shane M. O'Neill
Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
10/17/2013 | 11:52:41 PM
re: What Should Replace Loyalty To Company?
Good rant. Most companies are not in the business of personal fulfillment, no matter what the HR folks say. The best ones treat you fairly and give you opportunities to learn. Your job/company will never fulfill all aspects of your life, and that's ok. I've seen friends let their jobs become their identities and they change. Loyalty to company strips away the sense of humor they had in younger years. But this can happen to the most self-aware, independent-minded people too, without them even noticing. Coverlet makes a great point that your job becomes your identity almost through osmosis because it leaves you so little time to create an identity in other areas.
User Rank: Ninja
10/30/2013 | 3:35:22 AM
re: What Should Replace Loyalty To Company?
I think it's perfectly reasonable and proper to be loyal to one's employer when that loyalty is reciprocated. But if the company is focused exclusively on the bottom line; employees and customers be damned (I don't think I've ever seen a company that treats its customers better than it's employees), then you probably don't want to be working there anyway, and if you do, then it's only fair to see to it that you are paid the absolute maximum that the market will bear (one good mercenary deserves another). After all, loyalty to one's family and self are important too. And loyalty up never exceeds loyalty down.
User Rank: Ninja
10/30/2013 | 4:02:37 AM
re: What Should Replace Loyalty To Company?
Interestingly enough, Spock was highly loyal to his captain and to Starfleet (but they were equally loyal to him). Indeed, Vulcans, as portrayed in Star Trek, don't strike me as very good mercenaries.
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