What career? (The new paradigm of corporate loyalty)

The Twice As Successful™ program is about having a great relationship and two successful careers. But what does “successful career” actually mean in 2017 and going forward? One thing is certain: careers today are very different from 20 years ago, and that makes a big difference for how you plan and manage your career. Here’s some food for thought.

Once upon a time I worked for a company where colleague introductions at meetings included the number of years with the company.  When I joined it was normal to be in a room with several people who had 20+ years of company experience; anyone with less than five was considered a new hire; promotion to senior positions happened from within, and fifty-something managers had 30-year careers with the same company.

Fast forward 10-15 years, efficiency cuts and outsourcing became the norm, and companies started hiring millennials who weren’t ready to wait 2-3 years for their first promotion and often quit before they even became indoctrinated; many senior positions are now filled by people who come not only from other companies but even other industries. The word went around that company loyalty was dead. Or was it?

The kind of company loyalty that was based on embracing the company culture and values, on long-term personal relationships and long-term in-house careers, on the very specific knowledge of “how we do it here” is pretty much a thing of the past. The scale and frequency of corporate mergers, acquisitions and divestitures means that a single company-wide culture is increasingly hard to build and maintain; yesterday’s competitors are today’s colleagues; entire functions and processes move from next door to different time zones. Even the company name seldom remains the same.

I am not suggesting that the development and internal promotion of staff, or building cohesive teams are things of the past. They are more important than ever for achieving high performance. But as periods of stability are punctuated by ever more frequent, more cardinal and more complex change, the skills required to lead and implement such change become increasingly specialized, and very different from those needed to run business as usual.

There is nothing new in putting together project teams for the duration of a re-engineering, pre-acquisition or post-integration effort. The difference today is in the increasing diversity of the knowledge, how often and for long these skills are needed, how they are acquired, what happens when the objective has been reached, and what this means for corporate loyalty.

There is always the option to bring in external consultants. While it has the advantage of delivering necessary skills off the menu, this option is very costly and not always effective. Knowledge transfer and post-implementation ownership are just two of the many common problems; loyalty, or the lack of it, often is another.

Then there is the option to build and maintain all or most of the necessary skills in-house. For the past 20 years or so, most corporations did just that: as part of their long-term development plans some employees were periodically assigned to various temporary assignments, thus gradually building up the expertise that could be called upon next time the need arose. This vision of a loyal and flexible talent pool worked well in theory. In practice, building all the skills in-house was never realistic. Pulling people into projects often meant leaving serious gaps in the businesses they came from. If they were not replaced during a short-term assignment, this meant excessive workload and stress for the team they left behind, and performance often suffered. As the change programs became more complex, and took longer, these loyal employees were replaced in their line jobs and often found they had no place to return to once their assignment was over. No wonder convincing others to follow in their footsteps became increasingly difficult. And then there were serial change managers who, like chain smokers, often embarked on a new project even before the last one was finished – if they were lucky. They had little choice in terms of their next assignment, and could become locked in years of lateral moves with little upward mobility. Eventually, they opted for a line job or quit.

Not that line jobs are safe, either: the next round of mergers or the next economic downturn can see any number of previously secure jobs disappear.

The option of hiring necessary skills from the outside is a great solution for meeting short-to medium-term objectives – but integrating such hires into the organization long-term is tricky: their skills may be too specialized, or too expensive, or not well suited for a line job. Hiring on fixed-term contract isn’t something new, and it makes perfect sense for fixed-term assignments. But such hires were traditionally viewed as mercenary and treated with some degree of suspicion by insiders.

Drum roll… Enter the new paradigm in corporate loyalty.

Changing jobs after only 2 or 3 years is no longer something to be frowned upon. Corporations no longer hire staff to fill positions; they hire specific skills to deliver specific objectives. Employees no longer join corporate families: they trade their existing skills for money and more skills. What makes a candidate employable is not what position they previously held and for how long but rather what objectives they met and what results they delivered. The attractiveness of a job for the candidate is largely determined by whether it makes them more employable when they eventually leave it. Internal promotion remains a very attractive but no longer the most important prospect.

Going forward, teams and entire organizations will be increasingly built like LEGO kits: new modules added as required, repurposed and disposed of on an on-going basis. New jobs, even entire job families will emerge and disappear – all in accordance with setting and meeting corporate objectives, and including impact from technological advances.

Employment is no longer an indefinite marriage, a lifelong friendship. It is a temporary marriage of convenience with every term laid out in a detailed prenup. Corporate loyalty is redefined. For the employees loyalty is no longer to the company, or to the boss, or to the team – since all of these have become variables – but to employment terms and future employment prospects. For the employer, loyalty to the employee no longer means a job for life but fair compensation and attractive development opportunities. Loyalty is about fully meeting one’s obligations and holding the other side to theirs. In this new paradigm, developing an employee who will leave in a few years’ time makes perfect sense, training someone else to do one’s job is ok, and quitting one’s job can be a very loyal thing.

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