Promoting Custom Career Paths

Oct 11, 2001

Retention is still the most important issue facing business leaders today. Oh sure, there is a pause in the action of the talent wars as the shock waves of the economic downturn are absorbed. But most talented people have not been scared into submission as a result of seeing downsizing back on the front pages – or seeing their colleagues in the next cubicle downsized. Rather, all the fresh news about downsizing is reinforcing what most people were coming to realize during the most exuberant days of the economic boom: In today’s ruthless business world, we are all free agents whether we want to be or not. Job security is dead. The only career security you can hope to achieve ultimately comes from your ability to sell yourself and your skills in the free market for talent. And that points to another cold reality of the real new economy: In the free market for talent, some people are much more valuable than others – the best people have more career options and more negotiating power. The best people are the ones managers are desperate to retain and, yet, the best people are the least likely to follow the old-fashioned career path in the new economy because they simply don’t have to. If you are going to retain the very best people, you’ll have to create a custom career path for every one of them. When a valuable person goes to the trouble to customize his work situation, negotiating special arrangements with the organization, his manager and his coworkers, his stake in the position grows tremendously. His investment in the organization, his commitment, his willingness to deliver results grows. Why? “This is my dream job,” he will say. That’s a job worth keeping. Based on our research, these are the five non-financial factors of an employment relationship that people care the most about:

  1. When they work (schedule)
  2. Where they work (location)
  3. What they do (tasks and responsibilities)
  4. Who they work with
  5. What they are (or are not) learning on the job

If you let people customize these factors, they will design dream jobs. The dream job factors are the most valuable currency you can possibly offer as an employer. As the demand for work-life balance accelerates, the pressure on employers continues to grow. The one-size-fits-all career path is now the single greatest obstacle to reliable staffing, because the best people simply won’t work for you if they can’t get their personal needs met. Break free from the mold. We’ll look at a few of these retention factors in this article. Hire for Talent, Not Conformity The imperative to negotiating terms and conditions with the best talent applies not only to the ranks of very high level talent, but across the board. Free market principles apply to everybody worth employing. That’s why, in the new economy, career customization will be the norm, not the exception. Will this be true for everybody? More or less. So then how much will a nursing home orderly be able to customize his career? The answer: exactly as much as he can negotiate. In fact, one orderly whom I have interviewed tells me this: He was the guy who could empty twice as many bedpans as the next guy. He was the guy who could do it without disturbing the patients. And he cared enough to not disturb the patients. And he cared enough to show the others with whom he worked some of his tricks. He had a trick for everything. His work was art because he was artful. He cleaned up after sick people and he didn’t mind. He felt what he did was important. He was underpaid and he knew it. He wanted to work days, no nights; weekdays, no weekends. His boss wouldn’t hear of it. He had to take his nights and weekends like anybody else. So he quit. He knew a doctor, just a little bit, from his work in the nursing home. The doctor could see that he was special and got this gentleman a job working (weekdays only) in the hospital across town. You can be sure it is the nursing home’s loss. A person’s willingness to conform to arbitrary parameters is not a good criterion for selecting talent or allocating rewards. The best people are worth accommodating. I saw this fact in action when I was in rural Minnesota conducting seminars for Minnesota Technologies, a state agency that provides consulting services to more than 4,000 small to mid-sized manufacturing and high-tech companies throughout the state. When I was out there, I met some of the most high-level, sophisticated, and valuable production engineers and managers anywhere. These people could make a lot of money working for their pick of manufacturing organizations. But instead they are working in smaller, much less sophisticated facilities for much less money. Why? Because the manufacturing companies that employ them have been willing to negotiate some pretty unusual scheduling arrangements. These high-level production engineers and managers I met all have something in common. They love farming, and each wanted to pursue the dream of having a small farm of a scale befitting an elaborate hobby. It turns out, if you have a farm – even a small farm – you need six weeks off in the spring and six weeks off in the fall (planting and harvest times). As I talked with these people, I learned that their farming was so important to them they were willing to walk away from super-high-level manufacturing jobs to pursue that dream. The beneficiaries are their employers – small to mid-size manufacturing companies in rural Minnesota. I asked some of the senior executives at these companies how they feel about the arrangement. Each said the same thing: “It’s a big pain in the neck to have these guys disappear for six weeks at a time. When they go, it drives everybody nuts. And we suffer. But on the other hand, our willingness to accommodate them means that forty weeks out of the year, we have the talents and the energies of a person who we would never in a million years be able to afford otherwise. And so it’s worth the hassle.” It’s worth the hassle. Every person at every level in every organization is trying to negotiate customize work conditions to fit his life needs. The question is, will employers have the mindset and the organizational flexibility to negotiate as effectively as their best employees? Will you? Never be content to end a negotiation by saying your hands are tied. If your hands are tied, you lose. Offer Some Relief From the Grueling Schedule More and more employers in every industry are now going to great lengths to give employees more control over their own schedules. At one customer service center owned and operated by Xerox, managers turned over scheduling to the center’s employees and the result was a 30% reduction in absenteeism. Meanwhile leaders at Johnson & Johnson have found that workers who worked flextime averaged 50% less absenteeism than others. And at Microsoft’s Redmond Washington headquarters, every employee is encouraged to design her own schedule. (A Microsoft employee once told me, “Microsoft has a flexible scheduling policy for everybody. You can work any eighty hours a week you want.”) In a fashion similar to Microsoft, Cisco Systems is well known for offering its employees flextime, telecommuting, and even part-time work schedules. When employers give more scheduling freedom to employees – regardless of how many hours the employees must work – the result is greater productivity and increased morale, according to the research of Wharton School of Business Professor Stewart Friedman and others. Scheduling flexibility is the single greatest non-financial tool – and the number-one dream-job factor – at your disposal for winning battles in the talent wars. Use it. Location, Location, Location During the war against Serbia, squadrons of U.S. pilots literally commuted 500 miles every day to war from Aviano, Italy, where their families had taken up residency for the duration of the crisis. If the military can manage telecommuting in wartime, surely you can manage it in your organization. The opportunities are increasing every day for employers to give people more control over where they live and work. With advances in communications and transportation technologies, proximity of location is steadily diminishing as a logistical concern. What is more, an increasing share of the work to be done is information related – “bytes not bits” as the saying goes – and thus more amenable to being done from remote locations. Because individuals increasingly want and expect more control, smart business leaders are doing everything they can to accommodate flex-place demands. These are among the reasons why telecommuting is so common throughout Silicon Valley’s high tech firms. It’s really not because they want to seem cool. Leaders and managers in these companies are simply not constrained by norms from the workplace of the past. Starting from scratch, looking at the business situation alone, flexible work arrangements make a lot of sense. “We don’t care where you do the work or when you do the work, we just need you to get it done,” one Silicon Valley business leader told me. These firms would rather have somebody writing computer code for them from home – two thousand miles away – than not writing code for them at all. Alternative Career Paths A senior partner at Ernst & Young recently told me that his firm now operates on the assumption that all of its employees are volunteers to the enterprise. For that reason, the firm now maintains an entire database of best practices and success stories regarding alternative career paths that may be available to “volunteers” within the firm. Far more ambitious, however, is an effort that I was thrilled to contribute to in telephone consultations with the human resources team: Ernst & Young’s impressive role-based reconfiguration of its entire organization structure. In place of its traditional “up or out” structure – five ascending levels on the consulting hierarchy leading to partner – Ernst & Young has now put in place a far more flexible structure with 15 different roles that consultants must apply for specifically on each new consulting engagement. The roles are defined, not by level, but rather by exactly what the person is expected to do during a particular assignment – in other words, the roles are defined by the work, not the job. This structure allows for much more fluid career paths because individuals may apply for any role on any project, moving from one role to another as projects end and new ones begin. By reviewing the detailed role profiles, individuals can see what competencies they will need to be accepted for a particular role and perform successfully in it. Thus a person can focus her professional learning at any given point on the role she aspires to play – in other words, train for the mission. Ernst & Young now provides role-based learning maps to enable individuals to train for each mission more effectively. The system promotes clear expectations every step of the way and helps managers more accurately evaluate performance against specific work objectives. Even outside of the new role based structure, Ernst & Young provides unique opportunities for very talented people who wish to step off the traditional path, but stay on the fast track. One opportunity available to highly skilled consultants is to work in what the firm calls its “Advance Development Centers” (ADCs) located throughout the world and dedicated to providing clients high-level technology solutions – web-based, client-server-based, and so on – to complex business challenges. For the most part, ADC consultants do not travel to client sites, but rather work on high-level assignments within the centers. Another high-level career alternative at the firm is what Ernst & Young calls “Global Operate” (GO). An innovative combination of traditional outsourcing and consulting, the firm’s GO employees take long-term responsibility for one or more of a client’s business processes, such as managing a complex integrated database or an e-commerce platform. Consultants working in GO environments typically look more like, and in some cases become, employees of the client organization and are located on site on a relatively permanent basis, eliminating the constant travel element of the traditional consulting role. By abandoning its obsolete organization chart, Ernst & Young has opened a world of possibilities for its “volunteers” (employees) and given itself a huge strategic advantage in recruiting and retaining the best consulting talent. Every track at the firm is now a fast track and, as a result, high level talent can negotiate custom work arrangements without being forced to downshift. Of course, the competition will follow suit in short order. You should do the same.

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