The U.S. labor market has picked up, and has allowed for more freedom of job movement. For generations, most employers had the upper hand, being able to choose their favorite candidates among the best talent possible, and then retain them through strategic promotions and promises of job security & greater wealth. This unspoken contract between employer & employee worked for decades. In exchange for their loyalty, many employees could safely be assured that if they worked hard, they would be taken care of, and generously rewarded, retire with a good pension, and ride off into the sunset with a gold watch, for a career well worked. For many, the financial crisis of 2008 rescinded this contract. Employers, especially those who suffered massive financial losses, decided that they could do more with less. They laid off workers, and did not rehire at the same level, even when the economy rebounded. The employees who remained were forced to work harder, and to constantly live with the fear of possible termination. Employers were in control, and the contract was irreparably broken. Employees no longer had the security of long term employment, and their salaries also did not move markedly. During the economic downturn, job lock reigned, as many employees were still reluctant to seek a better job, feeling just grateful to be employed. Despite the more robust economy, scores of employees remain steadfastly loyal to their employer, despite their career advancement being limited.
Millenials, who now comprise the largest generation in the workforce, are now disrupting this notion of blind loyalty to one’s employer. The career of one of the most prominent millenials, the NBA basketball player LeBron James, has been a prime example of how this generation is turning this “job lock/employer in ultimate control” paradigm, on its head. After earning championships with the Miami Heat, he leveraged his talent to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, initially on shorter term contracts, with opt out clauses. LeBron, who could have commanded a maximum, long term salary years ago, played his hand well. The opt-out clauses enabled LeBron to have leverage each year, to possibly seek better deals. He traded short term “job security” for more employment flexibility, and ultimately was rewarded by now being the highest paid basketball player on the planet. While you may not be able to command a LeBronesque salary or level of autonomy (and may not even be a sports fans), there are some lessons that can be learned and applied to your own career from his case:
1) Strategic job movement is essential
While millenials are often derided for being job hoppers, studies indicate that if you stay too long at one company, your career advancement and earnings can be adversely impacted. While I wouldn’t recommend leaving jobs every 6 months, expect to assess your place in an organization every 2 -3 years. If there are no signs that you are advancing, it may be time to think about seeking other options. If you do explore other options, you want to make sure that they will advance you in terms of salary, skills, title, or other factors that contribute to growth.
2) Employer loyalty and job security are illusory
The unspoken contract many baby boomers and some Gen Xers were able to “sign” (e.g. long term employment in exchange for employee loyalty) is not as valid anymore in 2016. I am not suggesting that you should be disloyal to your employer. Rather, it is critical for you to understand that this loyalty may not always be recipocrated, and in the final analysis, you should always consider what is best for you and your career. Some of my career coaching clients report feeling guilty about leaving their current job, thinking they are abandoning their colleagues and direct reports. While more enlightened companies invest in their employees’ growth & development, unfortunately, far too many companies still view their workers as expendable parts. Therefore, although you may feel that your company is like your family, the reality is that it is actually a business. All the perks are great, but if the company is not doing well, your job is always at risk. Therefore, you should plan accordingly for possible transitions.
3) Networking and career planning should be life constants
Gone are the days that you settle into a job, with blinders on, while letting your networks go cold. You should expect that across your career lifespan, whether at an entry level position or a C-suite one, maintaining your networking contacts and considering your next career steps will be indelible aspects of your overall life. By embracing this new normal, you will ensure that you are consistently managing your career in the best ways possible.
4) You are your own agent & must take control of your career trajectory
You may have actually signed an employment contract, which restricts your movement (e.g. non-compete clauses). However, if you do not have such constraints, you have the opportunity to move freely. The appeal of the old employment paradigm is that you did not have to worry too much about your career. You trusted that you would be promoted accordingly, and move up the career ladder as you progressed. That is no longer the case. You must be the agent for your career. As an agent would do for a client, you must always consider your options, and how to position yourself to seal the best deal for yourself and for your career.
5) High performance, skills, and knowledge are your critical commodities
No matter how long you stay at an organization, you should focus on making a significant contribution, developing skills, and deepening your knowledge. These commodities are your leverage points. Whether you are advancing in your current role, or seeking other opportunities, you want to make sure you are at the top of your game. We can sometimes tend to coast in a role, especially if we feel burnt out or bored. If this is your case, it may be a sign that it is time to move on, or to set new performance, skills & knowledge development goals. Your talent is what will help you advance and thrive, and therefore, it must be constantly cultivated.
6) Risk is always part of the process
Any transition comes with risk. In LeBron’s case, if he blew his knee out before signing his current deal, some would have criticized him for not taking the sure longer term, but less advantageous, deal earlier. He surely recognized this reality, but bet on himself. You want to make the same calculations, and understand that risk can lead to great rewards. There is no right answer for you, but if you choose to stay at a poor-fit job, at least be clear about your reasons for doing so. If you are not willing to take the risk, in exchange for familiarity & emotional safety, it is fine, as long as you are honest and intentional about it, and recognize the costs of this decision (e.g. lower pay, less advancement, etc.)
Your career is a living and breathing entity, which needs to be constantly nurtured and managed. Even without LeBron’s basketball skills, you can still score a career championship, if you plan accordingly!