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Navigating Your Career (Lessons from Reid Hoffman & The Office)

When you think of Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, you probably think he’s reasonably qualified to give advice on careers. I happen to think he’s nailed it with his latest book, so call me a Reid Believer (#Reidliever?).

Hoffman’s view of the employer-employee relationship as a “tour of duty” that can be renewed is a powerful metaphor for outcome-oriented working relationships that have positive implications for both sides. Although I tend to be more attracted to metaphors that Tina Fey would use than to military ones, this is a compelling way to think about redesigning work. And for the .001% of you who haven’t seen the data on how people feel about work, you could probably write your own book on how work needs a redesign.

To extend Hoffman’s ideas, here are a few more concepts to consider when navigating your career — concepts that include not just employees who do jobs but also consultants who do projects, a structure key to the future of work and — not coincidentally! –our mission at Forshay.

The “tour of duty” you choose may correlate with your stage in life.

How you define happiness changes over your life’s course. Social psychologists find that, for many Americans, the beginning of their careers is about ambition and excitement. Mid-career, “work-life balance” (ill-named, but that’s what research calls it) shows up as important and elusive; meanwhile, the mid-30s is the most common time to start a company (some possible goal conflict?). Later in life, happiness is more about contentment and peacefulness. Even the pursuit of happiness or meaningfulness may shift as we take on difficult challenges at different stages of our lives. Of course, the usual disclaimer applies: Your results may vary.

In short, consider the possibility that what works well for you now in your career may not be what you want five, 10, or 20 years from now. Then build your skills, relationships, and mindset to allow for changing “tours” throughout your career. If your current stage in life doesn’t jive with a “foundational tour,” let’s not pretend that you must be seeking long-term employment to be committed to a great outcome for the company. Loyalty is actually defined as a strong feeling of support or allegiance, but too often it’s confused with length of employment.

The idea of a “company job” being more economically secure than independent consulting is shifting — and has been for years.

Imagine a tour of duty under Steve Carell’s character in “The Office.” You might feel that your job security is at risk (since it’s pretty clear he knows little about actually running an office). But what if you were an independent consultant and this guy was just one of your clients?

Job security and financial security are often conflated, but there is good reason to think of them separately. Consider redefining financial security as diversifying your experience across employers through successive, or even concurrent, tours of duty. What are the benefits of doing interesting project-based work with a number of companies and teams? Just as you wouldn’t invest all your savings in one stock, a mixture of projects and relationships can increase security, for both employees and independent consultants. If working for the fictitious Michael Scott was just one of your projects, you might enjoy building relationships with other (more competent) coworkers, learning about the business, and growing your skills in ways that serve your goals. When odd managerial situations arise, instead of feeling trapped or at risk, you might even laugh a little along the way.

Smart hiring: “Try before you buy” can be a two-way win.

Hoffman suggests that employers and employees have explicit conversations about where the value is for both the company and the individual in each tour of duty. That’s almost identical to the kind of conversation consultants have with clients when launching a new project, establishing clear ideas about time horizon, goals, and value for both sides. For us, it’s the only way to work.

Interested in a new job? The same principle of an explicit two-way win can apply. Consider a “try before you buy” period in which you sign on as a consultant, with the option to convert to employee status if the fit is right for both sides. At Forshay, we sometimes liken this move to dating as opposed to rushing into marriage — an area where ensuring a strong alliance, interdependence, and the right partner is everything.