Family or adult-to-adult

I enjoy the words and thoughts of Simon Sinek (an organisational consultant, author and YouTuber). I would even go so far as to consider myself a follower so it pains me to come to a realisation that I think I disagree. Do I dare be so bold?

In his book 'Leaders Eat Last', Sinek says leaders have to genuinely care about their people, like they do their family. He extends on this by saying people need to feel safe at work and return home feeling fulfilled. I have no problem with this, my problem is that he argues part of a sense of safety should be attached to unending tenure. His argument is that you wouldn't end relationship with a family member, so why would you do it with an employee. Employee for life? Is this really the way of the world now?

I think back to my first serious job. I worked at the Peter McCallum Cancer Institute in Melbourne, in the catering department. I'd just started studying toward being an occupational therapist at the time, so I had my eyes on a different career path. In this role, I signed up to be a permanent, part-time employee. What if this was binding and I had to stay there ... permanently ... forever ... under this contractual agreement?

Even though I found fulfillment in this role, I had no intention of continuing a lifetime commitment to learning the food combinations for cancer patients undergoing different forms of treatment. I enjoyed advising patients on their meal planning, serving pre-meal drinks with a bit of social banter to stimulate hunger, and checking to see just how much had been eaten after each meal. I cared about these patients, and my commitment was deeper because this was where my mother received treatment through her cancer journey.

While I was in this role I knew my part. I wasn't a cancer researcher, a medical specialist or even part of hospital administration. I happily interacted with the patients and tried to make their food experience enjoyable. I wanted the same as, what I assume, everyone else in the institute wanted: cancer survivors. I was committed while I was there, but my future was elsewhere.

Back then, I was looking forward and planning where I wanted to go. Now, I am doing the same, except I find myself in a different position. I am looking to the future and doing planning on behalf of an organisation. GSL has grown over the last eight years. Sometimes the growth was planned, and other times it just took on a life of it's own, taking all of us on for the ride. Now we find ourselves in position of needing to make some purposeful decisions. The world is not how it used to be and we need to steer this baby in a different direction.

Recently I've been exploring my cognitive biases and it's revealing some confronting truths. On the topic of employee and employer relationship I don't think there's anyone today who expects to stay in a job until they receive their gold watch at retirement. There are choices and increasing options for making money. People look forward. The realisation I've had is that I think standard organisational practice is to look backwards. We look at employee history and review based on what has been done, rather than look to the future and evaluate what needs to be done. How can we have harmony in a relationship when we're not facing the same way?

Another bias that seems to have made it all the way to legislation, is employer over employee control. Aren't we operating in a much more adult-to-adult relationship these days, or at least, shouldn't we be fighting to get there? I'm not saying there shouldn't be legislation protecting the rights of people. A human right is to feel safe, but why does there have to be an assumption that ending employment has to be abusive or unsafe? What about if it's recognised that the employee doesn't have the skills the employer needs into the future and the employer helps the employee to find another job? There are many examples of such work practices popping up around the world.

What about if a person has been with an organisation for a long time, but the organisation changes. Does that mean the person didn't do a good job in the past? No. It just means they may not have the skills that are required into the future. I read Powerful by Patty McCord who was with Netflix during it's growth years. In it McCord argues the case for having honest conversations around organisational future and employee skills match. She says she aimed for Netflix to have a reputation of being a great place to have worked (past tense). In her reality people come and stay while their skills match the need of the organisation and then the relationship ends. I think I'm becoming a convert.

On the topic of employees being like family I used to sit in the Sinek camp, but now I think I've moved to the McCord one. I think it's a much more equal relationship to have honest conversations and make plans about the future together. I think the days of employees hiding their decision to leave should be a thing of the past, just as employers deciding to take a different future direction. It is confronting, but I think conversations and decisions about skill and role match are vital, and this is even more important into the future when market is so volatile and unpredictable. If an employee is unhappy in a changed role, or doesn't have the skills, it affects everyone around them and in an age when protecting organisational culture is high on everyone's agenda, isn't this core to good culture?

This isn't something that comes easily for some and I don't enjoy the conversations when I'm told 'everything's fine', when I know it's not. I know when I'm being shut down! On the flip-side, I've had some exceptionally productive conversations, one of which is a standout for me. In this conversation I talked about the person's role into the future and my concerns about the person's ability to acquire the skills that would be needed. The person was given a week to consider the problem and come up with a plan. I knew this came as hard news, so I was incredibly impressed when, a week later, I was presented with a very motivated person, bubbling with thoughts and plans for self-improvement. The giddiness of a fresh direction was infectious!

I guess it may take time for some to move past their guardedness of old practices. In the meantime I know there are many who will jump on board. We all like to be treated as equal adults. I am convinced this is definitely the way to go!

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