The Fading Corporate Dream
Over the past year, I've noticed high-talent folks I know start to rebuff the corporate dream they thought they wanted. These folks are the top performers at their firms leaving after a few years or the rockstars that avoid the corporate route altogether. "Why oh why?" sing the corporates, "why are are these talented people leaving?" Here are all the reasons that I've heard and observed:
- Co-workers / management aren't competent
- Co-workers / management don't actually care about creating value for customers, they care about their own careers
- Employees aren't recognized or given opportunities based on merit - it's about your tenure or ability to network
- They company isn't interested in being bold, innovative leaders in their markets
- The company's work-life flexibility terrible
- The organization moves too slow and/or doesn't take risks
- Employees can't chart their own path / you feel like a cog in a machine that does the same thing over and over
- Employees don't learn and grow either in formal settings or on-the-job
- Employees can't be themselves, they have to act a certain way
- Employees aren't value or recognized and/or they don't see how their work actually has an impact on customers' lives or the world
The list goes on.
The dissonance now exposed Most people in this country want to be free. We don't live in a country with an autocratic system of government, so most people have at least some glimpse of what it means to be free. Think about what being free feels like for a second. It means you're able to pursue your own dreams and assemble peacefully. It means you're able to speak freely and have your day be relatively unintruded by the influence of institutions. You are able to be yourself and express yourself. It means you have due process of law if you break the rules or are accused of wrongdoing.
Now think of what life is like in a large corporation. It's not at all free. Instead of pursuing what you want, you do exactly what your boss tells you to do for fear that you'll lose your job. You don't really have the ability to express yourself unless you have a lot of power or authority in the organization. You are constantly bombarded by doing the stuff your boss doesn't want to do. Depending on who you are or what your connections are you get preferential treatment by authority holders in the organization (you don't get due process). No, corporate life today is anything but being about freedom. On the contrary, corporate life is all about control.
This is why employees are leaving corporates in droves: they don't want to be controlled, they want to be free.
Running corporations with a controlling mindset used to fly because employees had no viable alternatives elsewhere in the job market. Small firms didn't really have as much impact on the world as they are able to now. Small firms weren't stable and they didn't provide opportunities to learn and have that learning be viewed as legitimate by other companies. It was difficult to access networks of people, resources, or customers unless you were a big firm. As you can see, even just a few decades ago, smaller firms provided much less value to employees than they now can.
That dissonance - that corporations often operate like autocracies in a society motivated by the pursuit freedom - is now exposed. Not working for a corporation is now a legitimate choice. It's easier to find smaller firms or start your own business. People now have the capability to tap into global networks of ideas and support which gives them a safety net to lean on if things go badly. People can now move (literally) across the world more freely. Potential employees are no longer stuck. That's why people with a lot of talent (and even people that aren't blessed with a lot of pedigree) are doing something different - they don't really have to work for corporations anymore.
The punch line The fact of the matter is that corporations that want to recruit talented people won't be able to operate as autocracies for much longer. Many corporations are already starting to change. But it's not just about tech sector or startup perks, that won't be an antidote for long because it's a superficial change. Corporations instead have to fundamentally change their assumptions about their employees - they're not robots you program, they are assets that you have to garden and groom to unleash their full potential. Corporations have to stop being autocracies.
If corporations don't shed their autocratic roots, the corporate dream will continue to fade. And then, things will really get interesting.