Some years ago, I worked for a company with a CEO who had a background in marketing. It was 2010, and he decided to use his marketing skills to launch a huge new campaign called “Mission 10”. Our goal: to become the next $10 billion company. At the time I think I revenue was less than five billion. Slick slides were drawn up, pep rally company meetings were held, and everyone in the company began pivoting their work to fit the new agenda. Anyone who has worked in the corporate world has been there more than once. Suddenly every initiative had to have a “Mission 10” theme.
The problem? Despite the rah-rah of our CEO, we never achieved even close to $10 billion in revenue. In fact, that company is still below $5 billion last I checked. The bigger problem? The CEO moved three years after that, having never really achieved this or any other goal he set. He later ended up CEO of an even larger and more famous company that has nothing to do with technology. This is known as “failing upward”.
In light of the “great resignation” I’d like to write a little about permanence, or the lack thereof. We live in a temporary world. People pick up a job and stay for two or three years, and then move on. This was true even before COVID. I myself have several two-year stints on my resume. The longest I’ve worked anywhere is six.
Three years is just long enough to kick off some major initiative and get out at the peak, just before the whole thing crashes. The damage done by corporate executives pursuing this short-term strategy is massive. It works like this. An exciting new executive is hired on from a big company. The new executive launches a new product, architecture, marketing campaign, acquisition, whatever. Everyone rallies around it because, well he’s the boss, and because if you want funding for anything it needs to be tied to the boss’ initiative. The new initiative (let’s say it’s a product) is pumped up with cash, the marketing engine kicks in, the company oversells the product, and then customers start snapping it up. It doesn’t perform as expected. Things start to crash. Money dries up. The executive exits. And whoever decides to stay is left picking up the pieces of the mess that this guy created.
In Ancient Greece, you faced consequences for this sort of thing, usually exile, sometimes death. While I’m not advocating the death penalty for corporate screw ups (although in some industries they do cost lives), what’s fascinating is that in the corporate world, the consequences are the opposite. Said executive who just screwed up royally walks away with huge bonuses, lots of stock, has a nice sabbatical, and begins the cycle again somewhere else.
If you think executives are the only problem, think again. It happens at every level of the corporate world. When a junior IT guy messes up a new system and then bolts for another job, you have the same issue at a smaller scale. He just doesn’t get the bonus and sabbatical. As a leader of technical marketing engineers, we face all sorts of challenges when an experienced TME leaves and takes knowledge with him. Features can be stalled when the people who were working on them leave.
In my grandfather’s era, and even my father’s, it was expected that you would start and end your career at the same company. There was an expectation of permanence. People were proud of their companies and how they were treated, and bragged about the excellent pension they’d receive when leaving. Now, we spend three years and jump ship to boost our salary.
Companies, are of course, largely responsible. Often they don’t create the sort of employment experience that anyone would want to tolerate for long. People stopped being human beings and started becoming human “resources”. Executives, under various pressures, began to see their workforce as mere “metrics” to be manipulated as they learned in their B-school classes. Times are good? Dial up the workforce. Times are bad? Lay off 3%. People are just numbers on a slide to many execs, and the difficulties of terminating employment are a remote problem to be dealt with by line managers. As a result, employment is not a long-term commitment but a short-term business transaction on both ends.
The temporary workforce has an interesting effect on longer-term employees as well. Someone who has worked at the same company for 15 or 20 years sees executives and initiatives come and go, ebbing and flowing like the tide on a beach. They often develop an apathy and callousness that makes their own work unproductive. They tend to focus on the day-to-day instead of the long-term, and often dismissively ignore the plans of new leadership, figuring the leaders will just be replaced and the cycle will start over. Thus, while they have a long-term career, they often have a short-term level of focus.
We all live in a temporary world now, and permanence is in short supply. If you want to understand why companies build bad products, why executives start disastrous programs and leave, and why there never seem to be consequences, this is a huge part of it. I don’t really have a solution I’m afraid. Some of the causes are: greedy hedge-fund finance people who take over corporate boards, an undisciplined corporate press/media, the instant availability of information leading to a lack of deliberation, and the rise of a management class who are not actually experts in anything other than management itself. We can all point fingers at ourselves for up and going when the going gets tough.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that you cannot step in the same river twice. He meant that, if you cross a river, each time you take a step the water you were originally standing in has passed on, and you’re in new water. Thus, there’s really no river. Sometimes the tech world, and the corporate world in general, feel like Heraclitus’ River. Even if you stand in one place, everything just moves on.