Thursday, July 22, 2010

On stoicism, mercenaries, and being a professional

"Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer. "
Peter Drucker
For the past few months I have witnessed a number of friends making the all important choice of continuing their careers in a different company.

These friends are highly talented in their areas, with a great sense of independence and various degrees of natural leadership.

A common factor in their decision was a deep disagreement with company policies that adversely affected their work.

A common factor amongst the companies was a level of organizational obliviousness to all signs emitted by their soon-to-be-left top talent, not to mention a depleted talent pool.

A while ago I was having a conversation with a colleague about a proposed process I particularly disliked. In this case, the process favored the convenience of the person compiling the process results over the convenience of the people doing the actual work, forcing them to manually copy various bits of their work into spreadsheets and such.

My main concern was that the built-in carelessness for people’s time would send the wrong message, to which the response was “They [the team] need to be professional and deal with these situations, it is part of their job.”

Later we found common ground in assigning someone to build a tool that could convert the production data to the process spreadsheets, a task that was interesting in itself and far more gratifying than the original activity.

With both parties happy, I mentally revisited the discussion. People often put such a strong focus on the “being paid” part of “being a professional” that they tend to ignore everything else. A professional is someone who makes a living out of his craft. Someone trampling his convictions solely for compensation is called a mercenary…or worse.

With the economic crisis in North America and Europe, that distorted view of professionalism has been escalating quickly. Companies can hire and keep people more easily. That is a fact, and it is also irrelevant to how people should be treated once they are hired. Stoicism is a trait to be explored sparsely, even dream jobs sometimes need it, but people who do not experience pleasure nor pain do not make for good employees.

When that view of professionalism becomes the majority view inside an organization, it also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that the professionals leave and the stoic and the mercenaries remain.

Once the “cranky” employees leave and morale - measured in terms of complaints to management – improves, there is an illusory sense of order and accomplished leadership that is hard to break.

And it is always quiet before the storm.

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