Death of the Free Agent Nation?? Say it ain’t so…

Posted March 29, 2010 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

In 1999 Dan Pink put out his book Free Agent Nation based on his earlier Fast Company article and changed my view of organizational life as I knew it.  So, it was with some horror that I read in last week’s Globe & Mail a piece spouting the death of free agency.  Is the organizational man rising? Say it isn’t so…

Dan Pink is an interesting thinker.  A great writer and even better presenter (he’s a former speech writer for Al Gore afterall), Pink’s observations are the type of brain candy that Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin pedal.  When I heard him shelling his new book Free Agent Nation at a sales conference in 1999, my little Gen X brain finally felt vindicated that all of my job hopping was justified.

For the uninitiated, Pink’s first book explored why more and more people were ditching the corporate life to work on their own.  One stat that remains with me was that (at the time) 2 out of 3 people in California were “free agents”.  Pink’s argument was that California was always on the bleeding edge of any new trend and the tsunami of free agency was heading our way.

The implications for organizations were huge.  With individuals writing their own tickets, the suggestion was that organizations were going to find it harder than ever to retain their top talent.

The Globe and Mail article featured a guy in his 30’s who’d make the decision to quit free agency and stay in one place.  He felt he needed to concentrate on building his career there.  The article (which featured some consulting and HR experts) cited that the recession had taken it’s toll on free agency and claimed that today’s employees were looking to “settle down and commit” to a monogamous relationship with their employer.

Personally, I found the entire article pretty ridiculous. Corporate loyalty is very much a two-way street.  Both employee and employer have to commit to it, and unfortunately, most employers don’t have a particularily good track record in this regard.  I saw too many outstanding people get ousted last year to believe that much has changed.  Smart, ambitious employees know that they have to drive their own careers and they continue to do just that.

Secondly, I don’t think the economy has as much to do with people wanting to “settle down”.  Rather, there’s a realization that hits you in your 30’s that the grass isn’t always greener.  After you’ve cleared through 4, 5 or 6 jobs by the time your 33, you realize that every workplace has it’s pros and cons and sometimes it’s better to stay with “the devil you know”.

If you land is a place that’s pretty decent, you may decide to extend your standard two year horizon and stick it out with your new organization. However, I’m highly doubtful that many high performing leaders would stick around for longer than 2 or 3 years in the same position.  Most hi po’s I know that have been with their companies for longer than 8 years have changed positions on average every 2 to 3 years.  It’s almost like an internal free agency.

I continue to see fast trackers jumping ship, even in lousy economies. And maybe here lies the difference.  Not everyone is an A player, but for those that are, I don’t know any that are settling in organizations that don’t provide them with challenge and growth.  Free agency isn’t dead with high performers, so if organizations want to really keep the “best and brightest” they shouldn’t be lulled into complacency by articles decrying the death of free agency.  It’s very much alive and kicking.

Happy leading!


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  1. One Free Agent says:

    I just have to say that your response is very much on target. No, free agency hasn’t died at all. I just found an article today (May 25, 2010) that stated that HR departments are noticing more folks quitting this year. People are quitting their jobs in the midst of 10% unemployment? Apparently so. Main reasons – lousy pay, no promotions, and work they hate to do. Sounds like folks decided long ago if they could afford to stick it out and leave…they would. I’ve been a free agent for nearly 12 years. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Thanks for the comment. I just finished Seth Godin’s new book Linchpin and I think it’s an evolution of the Free Agent concept. I beginning to think free agency is a mindset. Free agents believe that there’s a market for their talents. You can choose to either run as an independent and market your talents or you can choose to put them into an organization and sell your talents to the highest bidder (talented, high performers are always in demand). The key is that you’ve got the talent to begin with and the confidence to do something with it (or if not confidence the willingness to push through your fear and do something with it.) All the best to your continued success!