Tom Peters On excellence: Travel the independent road

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The Independent Online
INDEPENDENT contractors, such as freelance journalists, software programmers and gardeners, wake up knowing that before sunset they must (1) prove themselves again with their clients, and (2) learn a new wrinkle to improve their odds of survival. Today the self-employed are no longer alone in this: I contend, in fact, that everyone - bellhop, scientist, boss - had best achieve the mind-set of an independent contractor.

'People do realise that job security is gone, but many don't realise what it has been replaced by,' says Homa Babrami, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. 'The driving force of a career must come from the individual, not the organisation.'

To support the point, she quotes a slogan at the perpetually volatile Apple computer company: 'Your sense of job security lies in your employability.' All this represents a cataclysmic shift from yesterday's implicit labour contract: 'Mind your manners and you can stay here for life.'

According to Bill Charland, a career-development expert, every position must be created from scratch - a far cry from filling a set job description. 'Given the reality of today's entrepreneurial economy, there are few jobs awaiting any of us out there,' he wrote in Career Shifting (published by the Centre for the New West). 'Instead, most good jobs are co-created. Jobs are joint ventures (with an employer) in problem-solving. They are strategies to solve pressing problems in organisations.' As Mr Charland sees it, work is quickly becoming a string of projects executed in conjunction with different colleagues from different places. Perhaps the best advice for all: If you're not on a project and creating or being recruited for future projects, you're headed for trouble.

First, then, you must do something concrete, finite and measurable in the eyes of internal and external customers and your teammates. (Teammates are growing ever more important, since it is mostly your network of peers that gives you word-of-mouth credibility, on or off a payroll, and determines whether you are recruited for new projects).

Second, you must look ahead toward inventing or signing up for the next project, or joint venture as Mr Charland would label it.

Moreover, you can't ignore the requirement to move horizontally and pick up new skills. 'Careers are continuing education,' Mr Charland said. That is true on a payroll and even when looking for your first job.' The point is to hire on and learn the ropes in a good learning community,' Mr Charland advised the neophytes. Again, the shift is monumental. How many have historically chosen a job based on whether or not it provides an attractive learning community?

When we turn to bosses, the story stays the same. Writing in Management Review on the pitfalls of 'empowerment,' my colleague Oren Harari discussed a boss who could not let go - until a family crisis forced him to plan on leaving the company in six months. Since his boss was not replacing him, he had to turn over managerial responsibility to his subordinates. Then his family circumstances changed and he found that he didn't have to leave. But with no job, the only way he could only stick was if he conjured up something new (which he did).

Hence, Mr Harari's advice to all bosses: 'Pretend you are leaving the company in six months with no replacement. Overhaul your organisation, and train your people to take over your job - then find a new way to add value.

And be prepared to repeat the cycle, over and over again (maybe with different employers) until you retire.'

Scary? Yes. But imperative.

'Think independent' also has a place in organisation design. Corporate architects might imagine companies as collections of independent contractors. Writing in The One-to-One Future, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers described changes under way at IBM. One manager, Jim Reilly, said the huge firm was dealing with 'the impediment of structure' by trying to make everyone an entrepreneur - that is, 'turning the whole company into a type of franchise organisation, in which there is a more direct economic connection between tasks and rewards'.

Similarly, Mr Charland proposed that we think of organisations as diamonds standing on end, consisting of (1) a tiny upper tip of managers (2) a large central core of entrepreneurial service providers and (3) a small clerical support group at the bottom tip. (The support group may disappear entirely. Mr Charland points to several firms that have eliminated secretaries, for example, and folded all support tasks into the jobs of the service providers.)

Contrast the mind-set of the independent contractor with this common experience: Following a last-minute change of plans, I telephoned a hotel early one morning for a reservation. First I was disconnected, then put on hold, and so on. Finally I reached a living person at the front desk.

He flatly declared he couldn't help me. When I asked why (calmly), he responded (calmly): 'I'm not a reservationist.' Nor is he long for the world of the employed.

Copyright TPG Communications