Timothy R. Clark: Don't pin your star to a company

Published: Sunday, April 29 2012 11:59 p.m. MDT

When I’m asked for career advice, I’m careful not to be over-directive. But I do say this: Get good at something.

When I was the plant manager at Geneva Steel, I distinctly remember a conversation with an employee one day. He said his father told him, “If you can get on at the mill, you’re set for life.” He was telling his son to pin his star to the company.

That advice reminds me of the children’s book I used to read to my kids, “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman. In the story, the mother bird flies away to find food for the baby bird. While she’s away on her journey, the baby bird leaves the nest and begins searching for the mother. It’s an endearing story, and yet it’s not prudent career advice. Yet some people still have the mother paradigm.

In Utah, at least, the long-time mother that we knew as Geneva Steel is gone forever. But literally and metaphorically, two new edifices are rising to take the place of that old industrial footprint – the new Adobe facility and the “Matrix,”as Wired magazine dubbed it in its April issue, the federal government’s new intelligence center at Camp Williams.

“If only I can get on at Adobe or get a position at the Matrix, I’ll be set,” goes the new version of the mother hypothesis of career management. If you can get on, that’s fantastic, but please don’t mistakenly believe that the organization is your mother and the source of your job security.

Such a belief is antiquated and dangerously misguided in the 21st Century. The world is most unaccommodating of such a strategy today. The speed of change and the impermanence of things make it so. We may yearn for stability, for job security, for something to hold on to. But what we must do is stop using the concept of job security and replace it with the concept of person competitiveness. The source of your competitive advantage is you.

V.S. Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize in literature, once reflected on his upbringing in Trinidad with these words, “Small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies.” And so it was. But can it still be? Can we choose to live that way? Picture once again the Adobe complex and the Matrix as massive physical reminders that life is not as it once was. Is there really a choice to compete in a small, simple economy? Could anyone have conceived that the University of Utah would outpace MIT, Caltech and other brain centers as an incubator of new technology startups? The future is here.

The core drama of our economy is accelerating change which translates into demand for well-prepared human capital. Yet we witness the thinning and hallowing out of the middle class in America. Why is it thinning? The answer is simple: Large swaths of the middle class are not prepared to meet the new demands of the labor market. They’re simply not ready. Do you think Adobe and the Matrix will hire from the ranks of mediocre, unexceptional talent? Why would they?

In his article in the Atlantic, “Can the middle class be saved?” Don Peck notes, “The labor market has been placing a higher premium on creative, analytic and interpersonal skills, and the wages of men without a college degree have been under particular pressure.”

I talk to a lot of people these days who flit from job to job. They conform to a new career pattern that we call "the waterbug.” It sounds fun, but it’s a lot like the P90X workout program which promotes the concept of muscle confusion. Exercising based on muscle confusion (not cross-training) is better than not exercising at all, but it’s a false weight-lifting hypothesis that maximum results come from constantly changing your workout routine in order to keep your muscles guessing and unable to adapt.

Changing your routine can be helpful to avoid burnout, but to achieve maximum performance, you must continue to increase both the volume (repetitions) and the load (weight). If you change the activity itself too much, you can’t achieve as high levels of performance. In the end, maximum performance comes from high and sustained focus on the same activity, but with increasing levels of difficulty. If you frequently change the activity, you will actually plateau your performance after a short time, and you’ll be mediocre at everything and outstanding at nothing.

My career advice: Get good at something and don’t pin your star to a company.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He is a former two-time CEO and earned a doctorate from Oxford University. Email: trclark@trclark.net.

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