Sometimes, independence is the best policy.
Allow me to indulge in a little bit of personal storytelling to make what may be a useful point.
22 and a half years ago, I made a commitment to leave a small town in lower Alabama to head to college at Stanford University. In that day, before the internet, I had barely known what “Stanford” was when the football recruiter first came calling; I literally asked him where it was on the map. As a somewhat highly rated football recruit with a modest national profile, I was known to Stanford more than Stanford was to me. When I made that commitment, a little-known fact is that I received hate mail from my South-loving neighbors…some of it mailed anonymously, some of it sounded off in newspaper columns. My favorite was a column in the Birmingham news that ended with “somebody said go west, young man, and Geoff Wilson did.” It was a tough decision. It’s one that I still to this day don’t fully grasp how my 17-year-old self made. The easy choices were right there (Alabama! Auburn! LSU! Florida State! Tennessee!).
I went for the “total package” that was Stanford–academics, athletics, weather, diversity of thought, and, above all, teammates who seemed to be interested in being more than only ground-pounding hunks of meat. Very, very few people understood my choice. My high school football coach, after hearing (from me) that I had committed to Stanford, simply responded with “I figured that…”
20 years ago, I had a life-changing experience on the football field. I had one leg collapsed and twisted in one of those awkward ways that leads to reconstructive surgery and contemplation of one’s future athletic life. It didn’t put me off the field permanently–I missed a season and then was a starting tackle in college for a couple more years followed by a sip of coffee with an NFL club after “recovering.” But, it did blow my confidence in some ways and either physically or mentally cost me a step or two. Physically or mentally…which one, I’ll never know, but it was just enough.
14 years ago, I watched my maternal grandmother take her last breath. A sharp, spitfire (she would say “shit-fire”) of a woman, she ended her life unsure of her surroundings and probably glad of it–I doubt she would have liked the nursing home. She had rescued my immediate family and multiple other wanderers from crisis, she always had a pot of something cooking on the stove (just in case somebody dropped by), and she would not hesitate to, ahem, tan a hide or two. Watching her take a final few gasps was formative.
5 years ago, I went through a rending and private self-evaluation and made a choice to leave a prestigious and altogether fantastic global professional services firm (that I still like and respect today) while on the cusp of partnership. I can still hear the “no, no, no” admonition of a firm partner and friend when I said I’d made that choice. I was in search of more than I thought that firm could offer in terms of long-term stability, so I went corporate.
3 years ago, I lent moral and physical support as I witnessed a very close 40-something family friend lie on a hospital bed in my mother’s living room slowly choking to death during a brief and brutal fight with lung cancer.
2 years ago, it all came to a head in two ways, almost mystically but doubtless coincidentally. First, I faced a choice of staying corporate and doing, as far too many corporate types do, what I was told to do because it would mean more money. This choice came to me in such a way that my own purposefully transparent values and aspirations were challenged in multiple ways.
Second, during the somewhat agonizing deliberation over how to consider that choice, I had the experience of being the first good Samaritan on the scene of an awful one-car rollover crash on an interstate highway in Alabama. The driver, with his young son and their cat in the car, had gone into diabetic shock and run off the road at 70 miles per hour. As my wife and I saw the dust cloud ahead of us and saw the small SUV rolling multiple times, she called 911 while I shouldered our car and sprinted (as it were) to the scene. The boy and cat were fine–the driver was not. As the only person on scene, I was magnificently ineffective. I clawed and wrestled to open the driver-side door of the upside down SUV only to find…finality.
It put my personal dilemma about “corporate or not” into stark relief at a time when such contrast was probably best needed. I faced the choice of either doing–in the misguided words of another colleague “whatever it took” to be a good corporate player or, in the words of a senior executive I worked with intensely for years, “going rogue.”
I chose rogue.
I think without the formative experiences of a few broken dreams (dammit, I was going to play in the NFL for a long time) and witnessing a few times how we all end with broken bodies (thank you, Chuck, for admitting that the best part was “knowing how you would go.”), I couldn’t have done it.
I think that anyone reading this has areas of life where rogue is right. It might be in work, health, or family, but choosing to go against convention can be exceptionally agonizing but altogether rewarding. Why?
First of all, there is a binding pressure on so many of us not to be creative. Wait, what? Yes. The pressure to be as uncreative as possible–to be proles in somebody else’s totalitarian society–exists. That can come at work, but I’d argue it also comes in civic society–churches, service organizations, and government. When you are presented with choices and asked not to think them through–especially when you are scorned for thinking them through–you are facing this sort of pressure.
Conventional thinking comes from doing what you are told, not what is thoughtfully considered.
Second of all, there is a subtle but extremely strong force that holds us in thrall with the herd. It’s known as “risk.” We view departing the herd and thinking on our own as risky. In fact, many corporate, civic, and church cultures are founded on the notion that people must be trained to feel worthless if they are disconnected from the whole. But it’s just not true–some of the most world-changing observations and decisions have been made by people who ignored the risk of solitude and actually did things. Do you think Martin Luther ran his ideas by the hierarchy?
I’ll riff for a minute on this second one, because it is an area in which the world has actually changed for the better over the past 10 years or so. In decades past, individuals attached themselves to firms for the promise of stability. The social contract was that people who did reasonable work didn’t get fired; they were part of the firm.
That all changed during the rise of corporate restructuring and overwhelming (but in many cases necessary) focus on shareholder value. The baby boomer generation (my parents) walked right into the maw of this reality during the ’80s. Lifetime employment was no longer real. Defined benefits were gone. The social contract had changed.
But people’s behaviors did not. They still joined companies with the thought that the company was entering into a contract with them…to the extent that they would eliminate their own professional voices and outside-the-firm career development options in favor of being “all-in.” I’d argue that such was the case until about 5 – 10 years ago. The younger generation has gotten wise to it, although not entirely. The world has changed. Nowadays, it’s easy to source and sell talent on the open market, and firms play less of a role in the matter.
For young professionals, this means that “what’s in it for me” amounts more to the immediate experience and pace a role in an organization offers vs. merely a “job.”
For talented professionals with a longer and strong track record, this means that the only reason to sign one’s life away to a corporation is that that corporation has committed to an explicit contract with that individual (I’m talking ink and paper–verbal contracts are basically meaningless even when you have recorded the conversation, trust me). The only other reason I can think of is if the talented professional owns equity in the corporation.
So firms like yours and mine are left with three basic value propositions for the people they employ: Professional development for younger people to increase their employability within your firm or somebody else’s, ownership of your firm so that they can enjoy the longer term fruits of their labor, or a contract that offers some risk sharing. That’s what we can offer to today’s “roguish” workforce.
That’s it: Professional development, ownership, or a contract.
But that brings you to the realization that for seasoned, talented people, an employment contract without equity is essentially a consulting contract. So, then what? Well, the short answer is that in today’s economy, unless you’re an owner or are receiving an out-sized investment in your own professional development, you’re a consultant anyway.
Might as well admit it.
That is the biggest change in the past decade: Senior talent can finally find its own level outside of the politics and impracticalities of a firm structure, and younger talent clamors for more professional development sooner than ever. It’s the truth. And, the only people I know who lament “their people’s” newfound ability to go get a better deal are people who think that people they employ are “theirs” in the first place.
I’ll offer a couple of implications. You might already see through my story above and say it’s totally anecdotal. To that, I say guilty. But still…
For the individual: This article is a long way of saying that life is short. We all end up the same way…broken. Once we (that’s you) have invested the time and effort necessary to build an exemplary track record, we might as well have the self-respect to exercise our freedom to choose. Choose where and with whom we spend our time and efforts, and how we are compensated for the risk we take. Let’s choose, at least occasionally, to be creative.
For the corporate manager: It’s important to realize that in today’s environment, exceptionally talented individuals are going to look for ownership or a contract that looks a lot like it. As a corporate leader, be sure to investigate the benefits that the new epoch of highly talented free agents brings to you and your organization. Oh, and because you do employ people (just as I do), remember that the contract is different now… people are looking for an employment value proposition today and not simply a career. Almost no organization can credibly offer a career anymore, so you might as well offer a value proposition that extends employees’ capabilities immediately vs. promising something in the future that may or may not happen. So, go beyond hire and fire. Consider sourcing talent in a more flexible model.
No matter where you stand, rogue can work for you.