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Radical Reinvention
m Tom Peters' Fast Forward newsletter

[Note from Nick: When people say they want a new job or more responsibility or "growth", what they really mean is they wish opportunity would walk up and bite them in the pants. But new, better jobs don't come looking for you. Employers don't sit around thinking up new ways to use your skills and motivation. It's up to you to demonstrate your value and to grow. On Ask The Headhunter I talk a lot about "doing the job to win the job". It's a radical concept, fraught with risk and rich with possibilities. Here are some stories about people and companies that stood up, took charge of change, did the job and moved "fast forward". Enjoy. Special thanks to the good folks at The Tom Peters Group for sharing.]

An online search for 1996 news stories that mentioned the term job security resulted in 15,850 articles. Seems like a lot of people were sweating about their jobs last year. (We didn't even try to quantify the downsizing news.) Wasn't it just last year, with a five-year low unemployment rate (only 5.5 percent), that job security vanished from the economy?

Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist during the '30s, who described capitalism as the process of "creative destruction," said this about job security: "Most firms are founded with an idea and for a definite purpose. The life goes out of them when that idea or purpose has been fulfilled or has become obsolete or even if, without having become obsolete, it has ceased to be new. That is the fundamental reason why firms do not exist forever." Holy smokes: Was he saying this gig ain't going to last forever? Yes.

Unless we reinvent ourselves. And that's happening every day. It's true the U.S. economy has lost about 14 million jobs a year since 1991. But we've created about 15.5 million jobs annually, for a net gain of about 10 million jobs in the past six years. That's something we can feel secure about.

Security doesn't attach to a job title, or a desk space, or even a company name. It comes from our individual and collective efforts to find the new ideas and definite purposes that Schumpeter has identified as the source of any organization's strength. Job security-no, life security-means each one of us getting up in the morning and asking, "How can I make better use of my time?" Heck, maybe that means taking the day off to read a novel, or volunteering in your kid's school-whatever it takes to break with routine. Because it's habit that is the enemy of creativity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Perhaps we should celebrate the newly discovered "insecurity," if that's the spur of innovation. The point is to make our lives richer, to learn and to seek improvement constantly. So let's forget the myth of a lifetime employment guarantee and look at some ways individuals and companies have latched on to the creative part of Schumpeter's "creative destruction."

Simms Gaston
Adding value to a company's work process is not enough to guarantee employment, says Simms Gaston. In 1992, while working as a design associate at a San Francisco printing company, she realized much of her job producing business cards and announcements could be automated. So, with a colleague, she developed a software program that cut her workload in half. Her boss was delighted-and promptly cut Gaston's hours to part time. Her colleague, who had more technical expertise, was promoted.

Gaston quit, but she'd learned a valuable lesson: She would continue to hunt for hidden innovations, but she had to turn her solutions into opportunities to learn new skills.

Her break came in March 1996 when she accepted a sales support job at bicycle manufacturer Ritchey Design in Redwood City, Calif. "I knew I was overqualified for the job," she says, "but I wanted to work for Ritchey, and I knew I'd find a lot of things to improve." She started out small, volunteering to solve minor computer problems for her fellow employees. Within two months, she was tinkering with improvements to the phone system. And, just before her 90-day review, she wrote a program allowing employees to tell callers where the nearest Ritchey bike distributor was-a project the company had been fumbling for ages.

Her initiative paid off. The COO asked her to help on projects he was struggling with, giving her the chance to work directly with the boss. Gaston continued to do her job in the sales department and worked overtime on the company's information systems.

"I made mistakes, but I learned," says Gaston. "My safety valve was that I had volunteered to do this stuff. And a lot of it, they didn't yet know they needed."

Gaston signed up for programming courses to enhance her skills. She points out that the training was useful to her only because she'd already identified problems she wanted to solve. "When I went to the classes, I was armed. I knew what I needed to learn."

Then, in October, she wrote a letter to the COO comparing her stated job responsibilities with the tasks she actually performed, and asking to talk about formally changing her duties. A month passed without an answer, and Gaston worried she may have overstepped. "But I thought, 'No, I've created a larger role for myself here, and I ought to be recognized for it.'" With no word from the top, Gaston started to look for a new job, rewriting her résumé to include all the skills she'd learned in the past year.

In late November, her immediate supervisor and the COO called her in to a surprise meeting. They gave her a written job offer based largely on the list she had written almost two months before. They also assigned her new projects with due dates a year from the meeting-a clear sign she had a future at Ritchey Design. And they gave her a hefty raise.

"I wrote my own ticket," Gaston says with satisfaction. "I identified areas of improvement that others hadn't seen, and I went to work on them. When I accomplished something, I made sure the right people knew."

But Gaston is most pleased about the skills and experience she's picked up in the past year. "I ask people how I'm doing all the time, and I keep track of what I've learned and what I have the opportunity to learn. That's my job security."

Federal Express Canada Ltd.
Everybody knows job security is tied to overall business performance; when the profits disappear, the jobs go, too. So, in addition to finding new roles for yourself within your organization, you might think about new purposes the whole organization can serve. That's what Federal Express Canada Ltd. did in 1992 to turn a failing expansion into one of the company's most profitable units.

When FedEx entered the Canadian market in 1987, it knew gaining market share would not be easy or cheap. When Jon Slangerup stepped in as general manager of the Canadian division to stop the bleeding, FedEx was losing millions annually. He could have slashed jobs and settled for a more limited presence, as it was forced to do in Europe in the early '90s, but he wasn't ready to ditch FedEx's no-layoff philosophy (it's not a policy, but no company is perfect).

Slangerup assembled a team of 15 employees from throughout the organization, with no members from the executive level. After laying his cards on the table-that the division was in critical condition-he gave them six weeks, full time, to look at everything and anything about the Canadian operations. The team came up with a list of recommendations that included everything from new products to new measurement systems and better ways to deploy FedEx's vast fleet of planes and trucks. Executive management accepted all of the team's proposals, and, within weeks, went on the road to sell them to the rest of the organization. By 1993, the division was in the black. And by 1996, jobs had grown by 75 percent to 3,500. Sounds so easy, doesn't it? Then try it at your place!

Jeanne Golly
Jeanne Golly has the best protection against downsizing anyone could hope for: self-employment. But she discovered her entrepreneurial independence the hard way-getting downsized three times in the past 10 years.

In 1987, she was vice president of corporate communications at American Standard, receiving all the conventional signs of security-excellent performance reviews, raises, and bonuses. Then, out of nowhere, the ax fell. "I was totally unconscious of what was going on in the world," she says. "I knew downsizing was growing, but I never once thought they'd do it to me." After 20 years in the safety of the corporate world, her job loss was a powerful emotional shock. "I free-lanced for a couple of years, which I found quite painful," recalls Golly. "Finally, I got over the trauma."

She was recruited by Kmart in 1991 and downsized in 1993. She moved to Electronic Arts, then left to take a job with Dutch conglomerate ING in Atlanta in August 1994. But within a year, ING cut back its new U.S. operations and offered her a job in Denver, but Golly had enough of corporate irresponsibility. She took a buyout. "It was a relief because I felt so much dysfunction and confusion there."

Golly moved to New York and started planning her next move. "I was 54 years old, and I was at a very high earning level. Because of my age, I knew I wouldn't be found suitable for job candidacies. I thought, 'It's better to start something when I'm 54 than when I'm 64.'"

She spent the next few months thinking over her experiences, skills, and, most importantly, her interests. In January, she founded The Bridging Institute, an educational institution designed to help non-U.S. executives build bridges with U.S. investors, media, and special interests. As news of her new venture spread, former colleagues jumped at the idea. In January, she and four partners-including her former boss at American Standard-founded a limited liability company with $100,000 raised through friends and family.

The new team is hard at work building clientele through a newsletter and seminars. Golly's taken a steep cut in income, but she's gotten control of her work life. "I'm earning a pittance, but I'm making my own way," she says. And her institute differentiates her from the millions of other consultants working off the kitchen table. "I have a unique vehicle through which to market myself."

Asked about job security, Golly laughs. "We should be trained from kindergarten to be much more entrepreneurial about earning a living. People need to wipe the cobwebs out of their eyes. Nothing is stable."

This article is reprinted from Tom Peters' Fast Forward by kind permission of The Tom Peters Group. For more information about the newsletter e-mail, or call 800-367-4310.

Copyright © 1997 TPG Communications. All rights reserved. Reproduction prohibited.


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