The implied social contract that has long existed between larger companies and their workers is evolving. Often described (by company leaders, at least) as like that of ‘families’, the relationship between individual employees and firms has typically been defined in terms of short-term performance and behavioral targets and the rewards or sanctions that can result. In many places, this relationship has become increasingly one-sided, with mounting obligations of service and performance for individual employees but few corresponding obligations besides financial compensation to the employee by the firm.
Recognizing that lack of reciprocity and mutual benefit in the relationship between employees and firms, many leaders are increasingly developing innovative workplace policies and practices. Some of these involve radical restructuring of corporations themselves, as Tony Hsieh has pursued at Zappo’s by shifting authority from hierarchy to ‘holacracy’, a fractal and democratic governance system focused on a specific purpose (like customer service). Others have similarly rethought the central activity of organizational decision-making, like at Dark Horse, the Berlin-based design firm, where ‘sociocracy’, or so-called circular organizing among equals, relies on consent rather than autocrat governance. More generally, as Richard Sheridan captures in Joy, Inc. (Portfolio 2013), his inspiring account of Menlo Innovations, the imperative for many leaders today is to instill more flexibility and agility in their management of talent as a way to foster a happier and (hence) more productive workplace.
As these examples suggest, many current and prominent attempts are at newer and smaller businesses, where experimentation and thoroughgoing change are perceived to be easier to implement. In The Alliance, the new book written by LinkedIn Chairman and co-founder Reid Hoffman, Ben Cosnacha and Chris Yeh, the guiding argument is that talent development and management need to be reconsidered and recast across businesses of all sizes and ages and in all industries and sectors. The familiar macro-level drivers of such reworking include sweeping changes in the economy, blurring of industry boundaries, and transformations of talent markets. Yet what is more compelling in the call of Hoffman and his co-authors is their practical and hands-on approach to engaging and empowering employees in order to enable mutual value creation benefitting both individual talents and the firm.
At the heart of the book is the idea of a ‘tour of duty’ for individual employees. Hoffman recounts using this approach at LinkedIn to get beyond conventional talk about loyalty or commitment and instead to agree upon specific terms with employees for deals lasting two to four years. The LinkedIn tours replaced open-ended arrangements that might have included fixed-term contracts but did not acknowledge the rhythms of growth and development experienced by both employee and company. These more traditional arrangements also tended to leave vague or unspoken the expectations of both sides about the future and, especially, the possibility of continuing association. Crucially, tours of duty recognize that after a given tour, individual employees often better serve themselves and the company by going elsewhere. Rather than being a source of insecurity or instability, the transparent and shared understanding of what individual and firm can expect from each other, and for how long, powerfully engenders trust and encourages greater productivity and well-being.
No one model or approach fits all talent situations or organizations, of course, and one of the strengths of the book is that the ‘tour of duty’ model is both itself flexible and one of several options for shoring up and enhancing relationships between individual employees and businesses. Recognizing that ‘stars’ are different from other employees or that age and industry variations may warrant different treatment, for example, may be intuitively obvious but are also often difficult steps for leaders to implement when dealing with real people. Both in the main text and in several concretely helpful appendices, which offer sample statements of alliance as well as exercises on how to ensure alignment of individual and organizational expectations and goals, Hoffman and his co-authors illuminate the practical steps that leaders can take to design, launch and sustain successful talent management alliances.
What finally distinguishes The Alliance, however, is its attention to the broader contexts of the networked age indicated in the subtitle. However provocative and practically useful to individual leaders and employees in dealing with each other more openly and reciprocally, the book recognizes how far-reaching is the potential of optimizing internal company as well as external networks for growth. Put differently, while the alliance between individual talent and company may be a productive breakthrough for both, even more consequential are the individual and industry networks that today enable unprecedented connections between people, ideas and opportunities. These connections provide the basis for individuals and companies to invest in each other and develop mutually defined and beneficial relationships. Thanks to the excellent work of Hoffman, Casnocha and Yeh, we now have a clear, insightful and practically-oriented guide to building new and network-supported alliances with talent that have the potential to transform our leadership, our employees, and our businesses.