Full disclosure first:

I would be remiss to not state that I have a very strong bias that I am hoping to largely control in this article. But this is my opinionated section. ūüôā

I am 100% against displacing workers. I understand the many reasons, and I know that for most companies, it’s not an easy decision. But I strongly believe that a large percentage of these companies have invested poorly, as they will displace workers before they identify other opportunities for cost reductions. Further, they do not have “rainy day funds” to support the workforce in such a way that displacement isn’t necessary–or is greatly reduced. And, when the business cycles change, these companies rehire a bunch of workers. It’s a cycle, and I believe it is a dysfunctional cycle.

Someone much smarter than me has probably calculated the savings over one of these cycles. But I often wonder if they have included the hidden costs, such as lost institutional knowledge, burnout of remaining employees, productivity losses over a period of time due to lowered morale, etc. And, when employees are rehired in an “upswing,” how much is spent to train the replacement workers? What is the impact on customers? Are the wages higher than they would have been if the original workers were retained? I don’t have these answers, I admit. But my hunch is that the savings spread is far less than what is believed. Wall Street doesn’t focus on long-term, really. It’s all about today.

Up or out. It’s a pretty common term these days in many companies. The concept, for those who are unaware, is that the “stronger” employees stay, the weaker leave. It is an environment that¬†keeps the highest performing employees, and coaxes (directly or indirectly) the lower performing employees out. This, too, is a fundamentally flawed approach. Worse, I think it takes responsibility off of managers, and places it squarely on the people who need leadership. I also take exception to the assessment of one being a high or low performer. It’s a label, and I think it’s too easily applied. I think a more accurate view is that employees are all rock stars in areas that interest them. I remember doing an assessment of a colleague a few years back. I had designed a “certification” to help prepare people for a specific set of responsibilities in customer facing roles. There was one individual who did not pass his certification. Twice. The rule was that, after three tries, the individual would need to assess other roles in the company, with the help of his manager. This guy had one of the best attitudes I’ve ever seen…and he so badly wanted to pass his certification. During his third attempt, I gave him a provisional “pass.” I did for a couple of reasons. First, he earned it. He studied, worked with his colleagues, and prepared meticulously. Second, the areas he didn’t score well were areas that could be overcome with some real-time coaching. Over time, he did well in his role. He wasn’t a high performer at the onset, but overtime he did well in the role.

Managers should be responsible for helping the “weaker” employees reach their full potential. Now, it might very well be that there are individuals that cannot perform in the role they fill. Again, I think it is a manager’s responsibility to show some leadership. Help the employee understand where her/his skills would best prepare him/her for long-term success. But, sadly, that is not how up or out works.

Okay…moving on…

At the point of this article, the United States job market is hot. Unemployment is solidly at 5.3%, and the economy has shown job growth quarter over quarter. The U.S.A. has managed to extricate itself from a pretty hard recession. Things are good for the employment market. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that wages are relatively flat. Simply put, people’s incomes aren’t growing at the pace they have in the past. But this isn’t an article about economics, or even the current state of the job market.

The world is your oyster!

Well, not as much as one might think. There was a point in time, decades ago, where there was a level of comfort when starting one’s career with a company. Layoffs in large companies were very rare. In fact, there were some large companies (AT&T, IBM) that had written policies prohibiting layoffs.

That’s not the world we live in today. Even Japanese companies (who had this embedded in their culture) are increasingly leveraging layoffs as a means to “correct” their current business environment. The “environment” might be a realization that their ongoing revenues will not generate the profit they desire, pressure from shareholders to decrease expenses, etc. The reality is that the employer/employee relationship tilted away from being a shared partnership, to a view of people as commodities. Some may say this is a pessimistic view of the current employment relationship between companies and employees. It’s a fair statement. But I believe the view is backed by data.

It is also important to note that technology has certainly had an impact on the employment picture. There are many skilled trades that have been impacted by robotic devices, for example. Many administrative and clerical roles have been impacted by automation. And, more recently, executives that were responsible for strategy have seen sophisticated software modeling solutions that can crunch various “scenarios” and provide statistical clarity to those scenarios… precisely what was expected of their roles in the past.

There has been a substantial decline in large companies that have embraced no layoff policies. And this is an important datapoint to remember. Why?

One company careers are rare.

The cultures of companies have shifted along with companies’ views about employees being expendable resources. (There, I said it!) It would be erroneous to say that employees have become disillusioned with “corporate America.” It would be more accurate to say that employees understand the environments with clarity, and have revised (or created) their plans to include “plan B” for any role they fill.

Before writing this article, I interviewed an individual who once worked for IBM, during the time that they had a no layoff policy. I also talked to a relative who is young in her career, and has never worked for a company with a no layoff policy–and probably doesn’t even understand the concept. I did not talk to either as preparation for this article; it was during the course of normal interactions.

The former IBM employee gave me this insight of IBM during the days that there was a no layoff policy:

  • Attention each day was on what needed to be done as a part of the role. There was a realization that slowness in one part of the company might mean transferring to another part of the company. Though this was inconvenient, there were other ways to manage this. It was a big company, so it wasn’t unusual to find a different role in the same location, rather than move. Many chose to move, as they liked the change.
  • Career planning was focused on how to move through the company’s various layers. IBM was huge, and there was plenty of opportunity. It was very easy to conceptualize that one could start working at IBM right out of college, and retire at IBM.
  • Financially, IBM took care of its employees. Most big companies did in those days. There wasn’t a belief that anyone would retire wealthy, but most believed they’d be comfortable. This did start to change during my later years with the company.
  • We didn’t really worry about having a job, as long as we met the objectives that were jointly developed. We knew the company was prohibited from getting rid of employees unless there were job performance issues, or policy violations. This provided the ability to focus on the things that mattered, instead of wasting time worrying about what to do next.

My relative, as noted is young in her career.¬†Let’s contrast her view on the workplace versus my friend from IBM:

  • She’s had some upward mobility at her existing company, but still feels it’s not a long-term place for her career. Some of this is driven by a desire to relocate.
  • She doesn’t really feel any “bind” with the company. It’s a place to work, gain some skills, and then move on.
  • There have been cutbacks elsewhere in the company, but she hasn’t directly been impacted. The idea of cutbacks is accepted as a general way of doing business.
  • Although a recent promotion has delayed her desire to immediately pursue opportunities outside of the company, her resolve to leave at some point is still clear.
  • She doesn’t feel invested in the company, nor does she feel the company is invested in her.

Well, that’s quite a difference between both individuals. The IBM “lifer” didn’t really think about what it would take to move ahead, as he trusted the system. My relative is constantly thinking ahead, as she believes that any system in place isn’t one that is going to look out for her long-term interests.

Going from then to now…

As fun as it might be to reminisce about the past employment environment, it’s not really the point of this post. No, this is about having a successful career. Specifically, taking responsibility for that path. The history noted is a way to demonstrate that times have changed. Although there has been a history of people successfully managing careers for centuries, the dynamics of what was necessary to do so have changed significantly. There is a twenty-first century realization that companies are not in business to take care of employees; it’s not a sellable service. Progressive companies certainly understand the value in trying to keep employees engaged. But ultimately they’re focused on sustaining their business.¬†The majority of “good” companies¬†see¬†“their part” in the employee/employer relationship¬†as being one¬†to provide a means by which employees can achieve success (progression), and providing a suite of benefits that help attract and maintain that relationship.

How does one manage a career?

My blog posts are written for people who appreciate a minimalist approach to writing. When I write about technical topics, I purposely try to negate the use of technology terms, and instead try to use real-life things people understand. I say this now, as some people reading this are going to say, “Well, this is obvious.” For some, yes. For others–particularly those “young” in their careers, it is not.

Managing a career is much like driving a car in bad traffic. (I’m going to assume good drivers here!) The driver is always anticipating what is going to happen next, and generally steers clear of potential problems. As an example, if there is a big cloud of smoke visible a mile ahead, and it appears to be on the path in which one is driving, the good driver will likely try to identify an alternate path quickly.

Using practical advice, and continuing my driving metaphor, these are the things I’ve applied over the year:

Plan, plan, plan! When planning a trip to an unfamiliar place, it’s hard to imagine that any driver would be successful without having first created a plan. What roads will be taken? Are there sufficient stops for fuel? If it spans days, where will the stops be for rest?

When planning a career, it’s important to know where one ultimately wants to be–but more importantly, along the path, where one will meet goals that are set. Location, culture, business stability, business type, type of environment, industry, etc. All of these things are critically important. If one prefers a laid back environment, investment banking is probably not a wise choice. Likewise, if one seeks variability in the type of work done, perhaps consulting firms are a good fit. The point is, knowing what you want is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Keep your eyes open! Aside from the obvious point that driving with one’s eyes closed is not going to have a successful outcome, it is more about paying attention while driving.

Likewise, during one’s career, it is important to keep your eyes open. I can’t say number of times I’ve seen obvious things happening in a company that would have a direct impact on my career. A direct manager that is dressing up far more than in the past, and is leaving at odd times of the day…or arriving late. Yeah, probably interviews. If the managers leaves, someone is going to fill the role. Will it be someone that meshes well with the team? And, if not, will there be carnage before corrections are made? Some people don’t like change, and react poorly to changes like this.

Anticipate! I gave the example above about the cloud of smoke over a road in bad traffic. That’s pretty obvious. But we’ve all probably had far more common opportunities we’ve seen. If you notice the lane you’re in is slowing down, and all other lanes are going at a standard rate of speed, you’ve probably concluded (correctly!) that there is a potential problem in your lane ahead. Do you stay in your lane, or do you move to one of the faster lanes?

I love to pick on the mortgage industry, as 30 years of observing their industry has shown a consistency in their cycle. Houses are selling, interest rates are getting lower. Mortgage companies hire a heck of a lot of people. New mortgages, and refinancing are really going well for their business. Well, when the housing market slows, and interest rates rise, the demand for their services drops. Generally a lot, and generally quickly. What do they do? Yeah, they layoff a bunch of people. (Reread my comment about business cycles above.) Likewise, as one is going through¬†a career, it’s important to anticipate what has a high probability of occurring. (The probability threshold varies by individual, of course.) This is important, as anticipating these changes gives a far greater chance of being in a position to managing your own outcome, rather than someone managing it for you.

Deal with surprises, wisely! Have you ever been in a situation where a car darts in front of yours? You have a few options you can take. You could, of course, hit them. I wouldn’t recommend that, but that might be a preferred approach for some. (Insurance payout, potential!) You could slam on your brakes to avoid the collision. Or, if there is an opening in a lane on either side, you could quickly move to that lane. You have options, but what might¬†seem to be an obvious option might be the worst option. Switching to that open lane might be the best option, until you realize that doing so¬†now put you¬†in the direct path of another car. Slamming on your brakes might be a good option, until you realize that someone has been tailgating you. (Yes, I know, another insurance payout possibility!)

Surprises in a business environment come in all shapes and sizes. There are the good surprises, like getting a call from a recruiter for a “perfect” role at another company. There are the bad surprises like the company’s board of directors decided that your particular business unit no longer fits with the company’s strategic direction. And then there are those that seem innocuous, like a company deciding it’s not going to provide free soft drinks any longer. Each of these things can go in many ways. The potential job might be a dud, as the company has a history of employee relations problems. The company closing the business unit you’re in might be that push you need to transfer to a different business unit. The soft drink decision might tie to the company having deeper financial issues, and they’re trying to reduce any cost they can. (I’ve lived that one, by the way.)

Be respectful of others on the road! It’s a known fact in Los Angeles that the identification of someone trying to enter the freeway from an onramp means that the driver already in the merged lane must accelerate to keep the merging car from easily entering the lane. It is like a contest. I personally do not do this (really), and instead try to ensure they can enter safely. I’ve seen the people who accelerate actually rear-end other cars because their quest to prevent the car from merging took their eyes away from the car they were accelerating into. Karma!

It’s amazing to me how often I’ve seen people in the workplace who seem to go out of their way to cause grief for others. Sometimes, its the over-eager over-achiever who wants to pursue his own career goals by showing he’s better than everyone else. Other times, it’s the lady who miraculously has never, ever, done anything wrong, and always has a reason why a problem is someone else’s fault. Then there’s the guy who doesn’t feel compelled to help a colleague achieve a goal, as it’s not “his problem,” and he’s not going to be rated on that anyway. Someday, somewhere, I can guarantee that each of these individuals will cross paths with someone that remembers these things. And, someday, somewhere, they’re not going to have the position of strength they had in the past. I remember an interview I had in the late 90s. There was a guy who was trying to shoot down my answers, and was just really being difficult about it. Two years later, he was sitting in front of me interviewing for a role on one of the teams I led. I was fair with him, and he actually did well. But so did someone else. Given the two individuals, and remembering my experience with one of the two, my choice of the two was easy. Yes, he did not get the job.

It’s all about execution…

All of these things don’t matter if you don’t execute. Saying you want to do something, or will do something, isn’t going to mean anything unless you follow through. It’s in your hands, and it’s important to remember that very basic fact.

In a follow up post, I’ll give some thoughts on interviews. I have¬†a relatively recent interview that piqued a number of different thoughts that might be interesting to others. Oh, and I have eight other topics in draft. That’s how I write. ūüôā