In Skin In The Game: Hidden Asymmetries In Daily Life, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has some scary things to say about employment, i.e. working for a firm or a corporation with which your relationship is full time payroll employee.
He relates employment to slavery, in a chapter entitled How To Legally Own Another Person.
Every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second, by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they disobey authority.
Taleb describes the company person, “impregnated with the stamp his firm wants to give”. His evidence includes dressing the part, using the language the company expects, socializing with other company people and spouses, and sharing company jokes. Not the tiniest amount of idiosyncratic attribute is permitted – because there is “something huge to lose” if the individual does not behave as a company person.
In return, the firm is bound by a pact to keep the company person on the books as long as feasible. Except it doesn’t work that way any more. Technological innovations and financial and structural changes in corporations have ended the tenure of the company person.
But even worse, says Taleb, is the requirement that people who are no longer owned by the corporation must remain employable. They fear not only upsetting their employer, but also other potential employers.
Is it possible to live the entrepreneurial life when employed by a firm? Yes (despite what Taleb believes) because the entrepreneurial life is an attitude and a style and a way of managing the future that you can bring to any context.
Here are our guidelines:
Reinforce Your Own Uniqueness.
The entrepreneurial life is to serve a customer need in a unique and better way. If you are employed, you have chosen your employer as your customer, the one who buys your productive output. Serve your customer well, understand their needs, and deliver in a way that is superior to any other supplier of productive services to that employer. That may require accumulating and demonstrating unique skills, or acquiring unparalleled knowledge about a particular issue, or product, or process. There are many pathways to uniqueness.
Focus on indispensability.
Uniqueness that is dispensable will not get you long-term employment security. The entrepreneurial way is to develop deep insight into the needs of the customer, and to be able to identify those needs that are currently unmet and high enough on the value scale that a new solution to them will be perceived as highly compelling. Treat your employer exactly as you would a customer. Identify the need, do your research to make sure it’s a compelling need, imagine a future state where that need is fully met, and then deploy your personal resources to implement the new solution. Develop metrics to measure the results of your initiative. And your metric should not be a qualitative job assessment by a person of higher rank in the organization. That person is your competitor.
A couple of highly valued and measurable fields for indispensability are demonstrable individual contribution to the profit of the company, demonstrable individual contribution to the topline revenue of the company, and individual ownership of external important relationships. Traders in energy companies, financial companies and commodity companies can show direct contribution to profits. Sales executives who manage relationships with key customers can show direct contribution to revenues. And similar important external revenues might be attributed to financial reporting executives who help determine external analysts’ evaluation of the company’s stock price. Try to find your indispensable role.
Broaden your engagement.
Entrepreneurs, once they have developed an idea for a business offering, and have proven that there is a positive response to their offering among at least a small segment of the market, proceed to broaden their niche by attracting more customers, and/or adding new service line extensions. The principle can be applied as an employee: once your uniqueness is established, apply it more broadly. For example, the ability to cross internal company boundaries between departments and organizational silos is highly valued. Volunteer to contribute unique knowledge on cross-functional teams and then demonstrate your ability to lead the team, or to be a catalyst to team energy and team collaboration.
Don’t be afraid of losing.
Ultimately, you lose your entrepreneurial spirit when you become afraid of losing your job or losing out in the race for promotion. The employment game can be a lottery. GE and IBM, just to pick two examples, have discarded large numbers of employees in layoffs in recent years. You might have joined one of these companies and expected a long career path to eventual retirement, and been disappointed. No-one should put themselves in a position where their well-being depends on a lottery and they’re fearful of losing. So don’t develop a fear of losing. Establish your uniqueness, broaden your engagement and take whatever risks you need to in order to increase your value to your employer.
Or, decide to exit employment and become a true entrepreneur.