How Do You Manage in the ‘Free Agent’ Era?

Companies and employees have moved to an at-will, free-agent model. Are conference attendees following suit?

Casnocha_Ben-HR Photo 2We’ve come a long way from the days of the company man. No longer do people stay with one employer for their entire career, or even for an entire decade. Nor are companies themselves looking for them to.

“In the at-will era, employees have been encouraged to think of themselves as ‘free agents,’ seeking out the best opportunities for growth and changing jobs whenever better offers beckoned,” Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh write in The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. “The Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study found that even though about half of employees wanted to stay with their current employer, most of them felt that they would have to take a job at a different company in order to advance their careers.”

An entrepreneur and author who previously collaborated with LinkedIn cofounder Hoffman on The Startup of You, Casnocha will discuss the realities of managing people in the free-agent era during a General Session presentation at the PCMA 2016 Education Conference in St. Louis next month. Spoiler alert: This phenomenon is not confined to the office. Professionals in every sector are also more inclined to approach meetings and conferences as free agents — meaning you can’t assume they’ll show up out of a sense of loyalty to your organization.

We recently talked to Casnocha about teaming up with Hoffman, organizing “tours of duty” for employees, and building an incremental, honest relationship with attendees.

How did you come to work with Reid Hoffman?

Reid and I have been friends and partners for some time. We got to know each other in Silicon Valley and wrote a book together a few years ago called The Startup of You, which was a career guide for individual professionals on how to transform your career using entrepreneurial strategies. Everyone has to be the CEO of their own career, even if they have a job somewhere. That was our first serious collaboration, and what came out of that book was a lot of questions from organizations, associations, businesses, and companies, asking us how do we attract, manage, and retain these sorts of Startup of You employees?

We have these especially younger employees who are building their personal brand, and adapting, and taking risks, and building their networks. Those are all probably good things, good qualities to have in the modern world. How do we integrate them into our business? How do we attract them in the first place? The Alliance is our attempt to write a manifesto for companies — a practical guide for companies and managers on how to attract, manage, and retain entrepreneurial and especially Millennial employees.

I’m curious about the subtitle — Managing Talent in the Networked Age. Does that suggest that social-networking platforms like LinkedIn have fundamentally changed how employees and employers relate to each other?

Definitely. The networked age refers to the fact that basically all professionals are now connected to each other and connected to companies. That means that, first, every individual professional has a professional identity and a brand that’s all their own. Historically, for many decades in corporate America, the employee’s identity was entirely subjugated to the company’s. It was, you are the company man or the company woman. Today, the employee has their own identity, and it’s connected to the company and connected to other professionals through networks like LinkedIn.

Moreover, the fact that everyone’s connected, that it’s just a click away to get an introduction to somebody, means that the flow of labor is much more robust, especially among high-skill and white-collar professions. There are people moving around a lot more. It’s easier to find new opportunities. It’s easier to be found by other companies.

To manage now in the networked age means you don’t just have a monopoly on your employees’ identity flow. You’re engaging with them as an ally in an ecosystem in which they have other opportunities, they can find other opportunities, and they have a professional network around them that they will maintain a lifelong relationship with, even if they don’t maintain lifetime employment at your business.

Is there a common mistake that you see organizations make when it comes to managing talent these days?

A lot of companies and a lot of CEOs sometimes haven’t wrapped their heads around the fact that lifetime employment is over, that your company’s not a family. You might think of your employees like family members, but it’s not a family. You don’t guarantee employment, and they don’t pledge lifelong loyalty anymore. That was a model that was set for an era of stability, but that era has changed.

The interesting question is, if you’re not a family, then what are you? How do you relate to your employees? You don’t want to treat them like free agents. You don’t want to minimize the relationship and say, “Okay, loyalty’s gone, so screw it — we’re not going to invest in each other.” Because if there’s not actually a relationship at work, if the employee doesn’t feel like they’re part of something, if the company doesn’t invest in the employee, then you’re not going to be able to achieve this long-term innovation that everyone’s interested in. What do you do?

That’s the opening that we try to explore in our book The Alliance, which is: Stop treating your employees like family members or free agents, and start treating them as allies on what we call “tours of duty.”

What does it mean to think of an employee as an ally?

In the old days, you’d look at an employee and you’d say, “Okay, you want stability in your life. We want stability as an organization. Let’s be stable together.” In an alliance, you look at the employee and say, “You need adaptability over the long term. We need adaptability over our company trajectory. Let’s be adaptable together. We as a company are going to invest in you if you invest in us.”

It’s a relationship characterized by that mutual investment and mutual benefit, so it’s two voluntary actors, independent entities, entering into a relationship where both sides are investing in the other. The payoff for the employees is not just, “Oh, you should be so grateful you have a job.” It’s, “Your LinkedIn profile looks more impressive at the end of the employment. The company is increasing your market value.” The payoff for the company is the employee has made your company more adaptive and more innovative.

That’s the exchange of value in an alliance. We work with companies to help them organize these employment relationships in a series of tours of duty. The idea there is that, as opposed to so many employment relationships that are just characterized by vague indefiniteness — it’s like, “Hey, we hope you do great work here, forever” — you organize a tour of duty and say, “Look, you’re probably not committing your whole life here, but we want you to at least commit to two years, three years, four years, whatever, where you’re going to focus on a specific mission at this company. It’s really meaningful, and if you complete this mission, then it’ll benefit your career in a certain way. It’ll benefit the company. At the end of that tour of duty, we’ll talk about whether or not to do another tour of duty at the company, and maybe another.”

You can have employees that stay for a very long time indeed, completing a series of concrete tours of duty. It’s through those tour-of-duty conversations and structuring a relationship that way that you can build trust. So many employees think, I want to move to a different city. I want to move to a different country. I want to try a different kind of work. Or, a recruiter reached out to me. But they don’t feel like they can trust their manager or their company to have an honest career conversation. Without that trust, you’re not going to have maximum engagement or productivity, so it really behooves everyone to have honest dialogue about everyone’s expectations.

Is this something happening mostly among Millennial employees, or is everyone in the workforce experiencing it?

I think this is the new normal. It’s particularly potent with certain types of employees, so generationally, yeah, we tend to find Millennials think this [way] a lot more. The data is pretty unreliable on this, but from what we can tell, 18 to 24 months [is the] average tenure for a Millennial and an employer. That’s very different from what our parents and grandparents did at their companies in terms of tenure.

Really, I think the dividing line is around talent and ambition. Those things tend to go together. High-talent people, high-ambition people tend to demand that promise of career transformation. They want to be growing. They want their career to be evolving. They really benefit from career conversations in which both sides are talking about how they’re going to do that to the other. For talented employees, of course those are the employees that everyone wants inside their organization, and indeed are the hardest people to attract, manage, and retain. Those are the people who benefit most from this sort of framework.

Do you have the sense that similar dynamics are at work between people and the professional conferences they attend?

There are and there aren’t generalizable things like this. But I think there are enough to make it interesting. This general idea that loyalty has to be earned, you cannot just assume it, I think is generally true, and so this notion that “I just am going to pledge loyalty to an association,” or “I go to this conference every year because that’s a thing I do,” [is out of date].

One of the other things that a networked age implies is feedback and reviews. It’s easier to collaborate and communicate satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Brands historically could just rest on their laurels. Like, “We’re Roundtable Pizza, we’re a good pizza place”; then a video goes viral showing a chef spitting into the pizza in the kitchen, and that’s really damaging. Similarly, I think organizations used to say, “Well, you’re going to work at the company forever, because that’s what people do.” “We’re an association, you’re a member of this association. You’re going to be a member forever, you’re going to come [to the annual meeting] every year.”

You cannot do that anymore. If you’re putting on bad events, or not adding value, people will talk about that. A general framework is, how do you build relationships? You build relationships — and friendships, and romance —incrementally, over time, and you check in and renew them. At least, healthy relationships. This idea of a relationship for life — unconsciously [being] in a relationship for life — that is what’s in peril. I do think that relates to meeting planners as they think about how they in turn relate to their constituents.

Do you have one takeaway that you’d like your audience to leave with?

If talent is your No. 1 priority as an organization — and for most leaders, it is — you have to rethink the psychological contract between your organization and the employee if you wish to attract, manage, and retain the next generation of talent. How to get great people to work with you and for you, how to get great people to associate with you — the relationship and the power dynamic and all of that is changing. Of course, within that change there’s a whole bunch of practical things that you need to do differently, which I’ll outline in my speech. That’s the thing to understand.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.