An Inequitable Alliance

What LeBron James is teaching us about masterful career management in the networked age... ...and what Reid Hoffman gets wrong.

In his 2014 book, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman described the employee-employer relationship in “the networked age” as a marriage of convenience. 

On a strictly transactional level, employers need people to do the work and employees need companies to pay the bills. At a more nuanced level, employers need people to advance the company’s mission (e.g. 1a. To organize the world’s information 1b. To increase shareholder value) and employees need companies to advance their personal mission (e.g. To become an admired leader, respected marketer, loving father, dedicated husband and reliable friend). The more exceptional the employee pedigree (e.g. Stanford, Goldman, HBS, McKinsey), the greater their influence over the ways in which the employer supports their individual brand (e.g. press opportunities, speaking engagements, conference circuit). Reid suggested that employers would benefit from acknowledging the more nuanced version of this reality by forming ‘alliances’ with their employees.

In an alliance, employer and employee develop a relationship based on how they can add value to each other. Employers need to tell their employees, ‘Help make our company more valuable, and we’ll make you more valuable.’

This is wonderful advice for any manager that employs the highly-educated graduates of highly-competitive schools. Pretending that the most ambitious of our networked age employees don’t manage their professional careers with the same meticulous, badge-accumulation mindset as they did their overstuffed academic careers only results in unrealistic performance expectations, shorter-than-expected employment tenures and hurt feelings. However, the managers who acknowledge this reality and embrace Reid’s advice are likely to be rewarded with greater employee loyalty, stronger individual performances and longer-than-average tours of duty. But what about the employees? Do they benefit from this alliance?

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When I consider where employer-employee relationships are heading, my thoughts turn to the relationship between professional athletes and team owners. In these relationships, the transactional, mutually convenient and temporary nature of each athlete-team union is highly transparent. Teams and their shareholders (fans) expect athletes to advance their organizational missions (wins, pennants, championships) and athletes expect teams to advance their individual brands (visibility, marketability, cross-over appeal). The greater the player’s talent and pedigree, the greater their influence over the ways in which their team supports their individual brand.

LeBron James might be the best example of a professional who has mastered the team-athlete alliance. LeBron has moved from job to job to job, helping each employer advance their respective organizational mission while enhancing his personal brand and maximizing his future professional prospects. And it seems as though LeBron has at least one move left before transitioning to the next stage of his career. From a career management perspective, what LeBron has done since entering the NBA is no different from what the A.I. specialist does after graduating from Carnegie Mellon with their computer science Ph.D. and a fistful of competing job offers from Uber, Google, Apple, and Amazon. The greatest difference between LeBron & the A.I. specialist? LeBron has a team.

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Like many of the smarter, higher-profile athletes in professional sports today, LeBron has surrounded himself with people (unaffiliated with his employer) who are equally as smart as he is but in areas outside of his expertise. With the support of his team, LeBron can focus his energy on his present-day professional performance with the confidence of a man who is clear on where he is headed and what he needs to get there. This clarity puts LeBron on an equal future-planning footing with his employers; he can shape his alliance with his employers in ways that support his near-term and long-term interests. As smart as the Carnegie Mellon A.I. specialist might be, she’s ill-equipped to shape her alliances in a similarly strategic manner without the help of a team.

This is the greatest danger to the employee of the alliance approach to team management. When a boss tells their direct report, “Help make our company more valuable, and we’ll make you more valuable,” how likely is it that the employee understands with clarity where they are headed and what they need to get there? Compared to the employer’s clarity of understanding on what’s required to make the company more valuable (e.g. increase shareholder value, boost revenue, cut costs) this imbalance of understanding does not bode well for the employee. Even when they’re employed by the most benevolent manager within the most talent-supportive organization, an employee who doesn’t truly know where she is going and what she needs to get there cannot properly advocate for her future self. In these scenarios of imbalanced understanding, when the employer asks “What can we do to make you more valuable” the employee is most likely to answer “More money and greater visibility.” But in addition to money and visibility, I think that employees should aspire to gain something much more valuable. They should aspire to become more like LeBron. 

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If employees don’t already understand with clarity know where they want their lives to lead them - personally and professionally - this is what they should demand from their employer. Whether employees gain this clarity through regular, individual coaching or through participation in regular group training, this is where they should begin. 

After an understanding of their eventual destination is established, employees should demand opportunities to develop the personal and professional skills that will be needed to reach that eventual destination and the personal and professional skills that will be needed to thrive once they’ve arrived at their next stop. Whether employees strengthen these skills through regular individual training or through participation in regular, group skill-building, this is what will create the greatest long-term value in their career.

Finally, employees should assemble a team that will support their journey from present day to the future. Whether the team is comprised of formal mentors, informal mentors, coaches or trainers, what’s most important is that they surround themselves with people unaffiliated with their employer who are equally as smart as they are, but in areas outside their expertise.

In a future where the ratio of highly-skilled humans seeking work to jobs available for highly-skilled humans begins to resemble the ratio of highly-athletic humans to roster spots available on professional sports teams, I won’t be surprised if A.I. specialists’ moves start to resemble LeBron’s. I just hope that they know where they’re going.