Winning the Talent War #9: Nobody Quits a Dream Job

If you are going to win the talent war, you will need to create as many career paths as you have people.

I was delivering a career success seminar for about 100 summer interns (undergrads and MBA students) in a large accounting and consulting firm. After a while, one young man raised his hand and said, “What I want is to do work that is really interesting and meaningful and I don’t mind working hard, but I want to do it on my own time, you know? I want to work, when I’m feeling inspired… And I also need to work with really smart people I like a lot… in a great company in a location that’s a fun place to live… Where I’m learning every day… And I also want to make a lot of money, I mean a lot of money… really fast. How do I make that happen for myself?”

He was dead serious. For a moment, I couldn’t help myself, and I started laughing. Nobody else in the room did. They were all nodding their heads. That’s what everybody wants.

Paradigm Shift: Free Agency

Of course, that’s what people have always wanted. Who wouldn’t? But now people expect it.

Please bear in mind, this was not a group I had selected. This accounting and consulting firm selected them. And the firm wasn’t looking for a bunch of mediocre twenty-somethings who were going to attend success seminars by day, go to cocktail parties by night, slack off the rest of the time, and then go work somewhere else. No, no. These were the best and the brightest. It’s not easy to get this internship—people compete for it. The powers that be at this firm selected the people they thought had the most promise as young stars, people out there gathering good credentials, with a proven ability to work hard and achieve valuable results, people who were impressive in the interview process. This was the new crop of corporate stars. Count on it.

These people should be at the beginning of the long hard climb. They should be planning to work like dogs around the clock. Do the grunt work. Be miserable. Travel. Do what they’re told. Sacrifice everything about their personal lives for as long as it takes to reap the rewards of the internal hierarchy of the organization. They should be worried they might not make it. Thinking about how to prove themselves so they’re not among the mediocre ones who drop off along the way. They should believe: Only the best will stick with it long enough, 10 years maybe, to become partners, to move into the power positions with the great rewards (when, little do they know, they’ll work even harder). Climbing the ladder was the career goal of every ambitious person starting out, and it was worth waiting for. Not anymore.

This reality is the centerpiece of the paradigm shift that is free agency: The very best people are the least likely to follow the old-fashioned career path in the new economy because they simply don’t have to. Their options in the free talent market are endless. And they know it.

Well, that’s what I was thinking as I looked over this room of incredibly talented and ambitious young people who, just about every one of them, were going to be immensely successful in their careers. No doubt about it. They were all nodding their heads along with this young man’s question, nodding right through the uncomfortable silence when my laughter stopped and I was deciding how to respond. Are these young people going to grow up and get realistic? Nonsense. They were being realistic, far more realistic than those who had hired them expecting they would play an obsolete career game when they obviously have no need or desire to do so. On the contrary, these people, and their peers everywhere throughout the world, were destined to reinvent success. They were not going after it the old-fashioned way because to them paying your dues, climbing the ladder, and wrapping your whole life around a one-size-fits-all career path was not only failure but anathema. There was no way they were going to do that, and they had the market muscle in their talent to resist it and chart their own course. And what I thought to myself was how often the king turns out to be the fool.

I realized this attitude was not so much a career issue for all the young people in the room as a serious business problem for companies like this accounting and consulting firm and every other company that will try to squeeze them into the old career path. So here’s what I said to this young man and his peers: “That is an ambitious career goal. And you are going to achieve it. And so will everybody in this room. And here’s how: You are going to be so valuable that you can customize your career path to your exact specifications. You are going to be able to do that as long as you have marketable skills and the ability to get a lot of very valuable work done very well and very fast. You will be able to work wherever you want, whenever you want, doing whatever you want, with whomever you want, and you are going to make a lot of money, very fast. You are going to do that because you won’t have it any other way.”

Jump on the Slippery Slope

If you learn to negotiate seemingly outrageous terms with the likes of these rising stars, you will have a huge strategic advantage in battles for talent. But maybe you are worried that if you start accommodating one request after another from individuals seeking to customize their work arrangements, you will find yourself on a slippery slope. “Pretty soon, everybody will be asking for it. Then what are we supposed to do?”

Say, “Yes.” That’s exactly the point. Jump on that slippery slope and slide down, one person at a time, as fast as you can. If you are going to win the talent wars, you will need to create as many career paths as you have people.

When a valuable person goes to the trouble to customize his work situation, negotiating special arrangements with the organization, his manager, and his coworkers, his stake in the position grows tremendously. His investment in the organization, his commitment, his willingness to deliver results grows.

Why? “This is my dream job,” he will say. That’s a job worth keeping.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website,


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