Future-free security: Tom Peters On excellence

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The Independent Online
I HAVE a friend who's a house painter. He doesn't gulp down Mylanta. He doesn't pop Prozac. And he doesn't have a future, at least not by my dad's standards.

My dad worked for one outfit, Baltimore Gas & Electric Co, for 41 years. He was pretty sure, from one year to the next (from one decade to the next), which door on Lexington Street he'd enter at 8.30am any given Monday to Friday. Despite the job security, the work gave him an occasional first-class bellyache. (And that was before the era of middle-management genocide.)

My house painter friend has no idea what portal he'll traverse three Mondays from now, but he's comfortable that there will be a door to pass through, then paint.

Complacent? Never. Comfortable? Absolutely.

He shows up on time. Finishes the job on time. Returns phone calls promptly. Meets his budgets. He's careful. And he's a little offbeat, with a hint of the artist in him.

His clients recommend him to others. Top contractors (the sort who build million-dollar homes) like him to add the finishing touches to their gems. And he actually advises them and their interior designers on colour schemes; he's developed a reputation for an unerring eye. Add it up, and my friend has what I'd call job security.

He's got no home on any org chart. No job description. (He does have great business cards and a snazzy truck.) No prestigious address, though as a computer buff, he has an e-mail address.

I thought about my pal after an acrimonious exchange with a journalist over my 'crazy' view of the economy. I believe traditional job security is gone, and not just in icy Silicon Valley environs. I believe, along with British management guru Charles Handy, that a 'career' tomorrow will most likely consist of a dozen jobs, on and off payrolls of large and small firms, in two or three industries.

And I believe that people can cope with these changes. Millions, like my friend, already do. They're house painters and gardeners. Accountants and software designers. Marketers and ad copy-writers. Photographers and journalists and surgeons and TV camera operators. Even execs for rent.

I take all this personally. I grew up professionally at McKinsey & Co, the management consulting firm. To be sure, I knew that if I did well I could hang on for a while. However, I never knew what my next assignment would be. Or where. Or even who I'd be working with. (In seven years, I never worked with the exact same team twice.)

I did know that if I hustled and kept picking up new skills, some project manager would recruit me before my current assignment was over, and maybe a couple of high-profile project managers would even fight to sign me up.

To my dad, my life at McKinsey looked chaotic. To the entry-level employee of the Fifties who went to work in the GM plant it would look positively nutty. He knew exactly what he'd be doing and where he'd be doing it for the next 30 years - barring war, a bad back or a liver that revolted against ritual after-work pub stops.

To me, my glamorous life as a consultant (one McKinsey colleague called us 'the movie stars of the business world') felt humdrum. Another damned 12-hour plane trip from San Francisco to London. Another client company in another industry to put under a microscope. Another three colleagues (from England, Germany and Japan) to learn to work seamlessly with. And, in six short weeks, the client chairman would require a progress report. Blow it and you were in trouble.

But, as I said, ho-hum.

No, I don't envy for a moment the laid-off, 52-year-old middle manager who's spent his entire career in the womb called IBM. My life, my house painter friend's life, the life of any independent contractor looms as a positively unnerving prospect to him. As a nation, we ought to do a lot more to help that fellow and his several hundred thousand dislocated kin.

But that's not the same as saying, 'C'mon, people can't cope with constant change. They need stability.' Of course they need stability] But stability can come in many costumes. It need not be clothed as the same old corporate logo on a bi-weekly paycheck or the same old door to enter for 250 workdays in each of 41 consecutive years.

Real stability is my house painter friend's fabulous reputation. Truth is (I'm not kidding), I envy him. Not only does he get to work outdoors much of the time, but I think he's got a more secure future than I do; he seems able to keep on top of his game more readily than I can.

Want to avoid Mylanta and Prozac? Quit your job at General Electric and learn to paint houses in a way that delights two lifetimes' worth of prospective clients.

TPG Communications

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