Monday, April 26, 2010

New York State of Mind Part 2

If I ran a large American company I'd be worried.

Not about foreign competition. Or government regulation. Or limitations on my salary or bonuses.

I'd be worried about the hopes, dreams, aspirations, and career paths of young, talented Americans.

Because from what I saw in New York, large American companies are simply not on their occupational radar screens. If "the team with the best talent wins"--which is not only a Rule of Thumb but also a shared precept of both Tom Peters and Jim Collins--then large, old, bureaucratic companies are likely to run into a string of competitive losses.

What makes me say that?

Anecdote #1: Lunch with a good friend, a remarkably talented young woman of 24 who is about to leave her job at a traditional company after only 9 months. She's found a better offer--at a start-up that squares with her values, is working in an area that she cares about, has more energy and passion for the work, and is going to give her more responsibility, better team-mates, and a more rewarding learning environment. Notice what it's not about: It's not about the money.

Also notice what it's about that she didn't like about her traditional job. Here's what she told me: "Essentially I was doing all the work and passing it off to my boss. I didn't get the credit for the work. I didn't get recognition for the work. I didn't grow by doing the work. All I did was make my boss look good. The idea was, if I stayed at it long enough, one day I'd have someone working for me who'd do my work."

If you look closely at her description of the big-turn off, it contains a number of interesting attitudes toward what work is supposed to be--and what traditional companies don't get.

Traditional companies see careers, still, as ladders. You put in your time on one rung, and then after an appropriate amount of time, you get to move up a rung. Each step on the ladder takes you closer to the top. As you go up the ladder you get more money, a bigger title, and more people under you. They do the work; you do the supervision.

My young friend doesn't want that version of a work-life. She wants a collaborative environment. A place where people bring their skills together and share what they know and what they do well. She wants a boss who is in the game, not on a higher rung on the ladder.

Or, alternatively, she wants the traditional game to change so the hypocrisy is at least honest hypocrisy. "Want me to do all your work?" she asks. "Fine. Then pay me your salary."

Of course that's not going to happen. So she's gone. At her entrepreneurial start-up she'll find something a lot closer to what she's looking for.

Anecdote #2: The Kairos Summit, a meeting of roughly 650 college students from around the world, all of whom want to be entrepreneurs. The highlight of the Summit was a day of meetings at the New York Stock Exchange where the trading floor was flooded with booths and displays of the ingenious projects these students were bringing to the market--from their dorm rooms.

What was fascinating wasn't just the variety and creativity of these young people's ideas. It was that nobody commented on the striking incongruity of a Summit that celebrated entrepreneurship taking over the temple of Big Business for a day.

I didn't hear any of these bright and motivated proto-entrepreneurs talk about how much they're looking forward to going to work for a big company. Nobody said this was great practice for the job they really want, joining the ranks of General Electric, General Mills, General Motors, General Dynamics, or any other General.

They want to start something. They want to bring something fresh to the market.

They want to challenge the status quo.

That's great news for America. It's great news for the economy.

Maybe, if big companies get the message it'll be great news for them, too.

If they look inside and see that what they've been offering their workers isn't what their workers want, maybe, just maybe, they'll discover some new well-springs of entrepreneurship.

Maybe they'll see that "security" isn't what it used to be.

That size isn't such a great advantage.

That status doesn't appeal as much any more.

That the old ladder has been replaced by a new circle.

Meanwhile, the energy, vitality, creativity, and spirit of this fast-charging generation is exciting.

They've got a lot to learn about business.

And a lot to teach to business.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb