November 2006 – Who wants work to be monogamous?
Suppose your boss dropped by your desk one day, brandishing
a copy of the FT Appointments section, having ringed two
or three interesting positions just for you. “Any
of those would be really good for you. Why don’t you
apply? It’s a no brainer,” she says.
How would you feel about that? Suspicious? Unsettled?
How about flattered? The idea that our boss might be working
in our interests is unthinkable to most of us. Yet in a
new book, Strategic Human Capital Management, Creating Value
Through People, * Jon Ingham, director in Human Capital
Consulting with Buck Consultants, argues that employers
need to develop a grown up relationship with their best
workers to the extent sometimes of encouraging them to leave
for opportunities elsewhere.
Yes I did say “best workers”. In all companies
there are the highly valued employees and the not so highly
valued. The less valued employees must take stock of themselves
from time to time in the same way that they will be assessed
by their managers. Some of them may well be encouraged to
move on but that rarely happens to the star performers.
Moving is often resisted but is it fulfilling to plough
along, restricting output and involvement to the basic needs
of the job? In that kind of environment, the managers of
less valued employees may have reached the ceiling of their
own careers and might be equally content to maintain the
status quo in a state of functional equilibrium, sustaining
but hardly progressing the organisation.
The more ambitious among those less valued may seek ways
of ingratiating themselves with management. Some - those
aware of their weaknesses – will try to improve their
skills or, alternatively, work in a way that complements
their strengths. Yet others will seek work elsewhere for
employers or clients who will place a greater value on their
The dividing line between highly-valued and less highly-valued,
of course, can be subjective. Ask a group of people to pick
their world’s greatest football team from the available
talent at any one time and you would get many different
Some players, like Ronaldinho, for example, would probably
feature in a large majority of choices but the selections
in certain other positions would be less clear cut.
Even the best can only maintain their highly valued status
for so long. David Beckham, for example, still admired by
many football managers, players and watching enthusiasts,
has seen his status transformed in a matter of weeks from
first choice player and England captain, to international
reject and substitutes’ bench with his club team,
In football the best players are shown the equivalent of
a series of ringed vacancies all the time. The choice of
club can hinge on various factors – wages, team mates,
the manager, opportunities for first team appearances and
what remains of a relatively short carer. Not everyone can
score goals in the Premiership at the age of 40 like Teddy
Sometimes - a point not always appreciated by fans of individual
clubs - it can be in the best interests of both player and
club, if one of the most talented players leaves. The move
by Ruud Van Nistelrooy from Manchester United to Real Madrid
this year and by Beckham in the same direction a few years
earlier are two examples.
Just occasionally in football a player goes back to a former
team. Sheringham played at Tottenham Hotspur for five years,
leaving in 1997 for Manchester United, then returning for
two years in 2001. Clubs, players and managers have their
personality differences that intervene from time to time
but, even if we rail at the wages, in football there is
a visible market for talent, however imperfect.
The market among other employers is less transparent. It
is reasonable to ask whether it exists at all. Companies
will compete for the services of a particular employee whether
at graduate entry level or as a senior headhunting appointment.
There will be a honeymoon period when the employee can do
no wrong. But at some stage, almost inevitably, there will
be the career hiccup: a project that fails, a fall out with
colleagues, or a shift at the top when assessments of individuals
lower down the pecking order can change overnight.
Worst of all is that, too often, managements and employees
maintain a kind of mannered, coded relationship, what Peter
Scott-Morgan has called in his book of the same title, The
Unwritten Rules of the Game. Sometimes these rules are so
obscure it is difficult to understand them. I once had a
job offered to me without understanding what was going on.
It was only afterwards, when it was too late, that I realised
I was being “sounded out” for the role.
This coded behaviour destroys what should be a healthy
and continuing conversation about careers. Sadly, as Jon
Ingham notes in his book: “the unwritten rules in
many organisations state that if an employee identified
as talent and their line manager see a marvellous job for
the employee advertised elsewhere neither person can mention
the fact that they have seen it.”
The employer might well take some action when an individual
resigns, conducting an exit interview, tracking their appointment
for a while. Some maintain an alumni network as a way to
keep in touch. But most will say goodbye and move on. It
is as if going back, for both sides, is a retrograde step.
Such reactions are understandable in the break-up of a
marriage. But employment isn’t marriage. Employment
is the engagement of an individual to do a job although
Jim Collins, the US management writer, argues in his book
Good to Great that putting together a great team is more
important in transforming a company than working out what
you want them to do.
“If you have the wrong people, it doesn’t
matter whether you discover the right direction; you still
won’t have a great company. Great vision without great
people is irrelevant,” he says.
But people need to make their own decisions about their
future directions. They should not be coveted by companies
as “trophy employees”. People are not possessions.
Bain & Company, the business consultancy, encourages
its employees to take what it calls “externships”,
six month career breaks working for someone else. The benefit
works both ways.
“Bain staff benefit from externships by broadening
their professional development and receiving hands-on experience
in an industry in which they are interested. Bain increases
its ability to retain promising employees,” writes
“In addition, because externships are arranged to
expand employees’ skills and experience, staff who
have participated in one will have enhanced their value
to Bain when they return,” he adds.
Ingham writes of “career partnering”, where
people and companies maintain a relationship beyond the
normal employment contract. Such arrangements may need to
become more common in meeting the expectations of a younger
generation of employees that has digested the message that
a job is not for life and that may also have experience
of gap years after school or university education. It’s
a big world out there. Why should employment be monogamous?
*Strategic Human Capital Management, Creating Value
Through People, by Jon Ingham, is published by Butterworth-Heinemann,