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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.
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.