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Managing the Free Agent Job Market

Are you old enough to remember how free agency revolutionized baseball in the 70′s? Suddenly the whole concept of “team” was up for grabs. Many of us purists were horrified as the Yankees found they could buy championships by snapping up available stars.

Today, there is no more debate. Free agency is the water all sports teams swim in. And despite our fears, professional sports remain fascinating. Despite rapid turnover of players, teams command loyalty.

Less commented on has been the revolution of free agency in the business world. After brutal rounds of downsizing and restructuring in the 80′s and 90′s, most businesspeople no longer regard their companies as family but rather as stepping stones. And you know what? It’s OK.

To maintain and engage your best performers in this world of free agents, managers must cultivate win-win relationships with employees. But Marshall Goldsmith, in his thought-provoking What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, argues that most business leaders carry prejudices about employees that interfere with developing productive relationships. We relate to them through a web of assumptions and biases, like:

  • I know what they want. Do you? Have you taken the time to explore what really motivates your best people? Because the answer is different for different workers. For some it’s money, for some prestige, for some a sense of belonging… The list is long, and in an age of free agency, you need to customize your approach to each employee you value.
  • I know what they know. Not likely. Peter Drucker predicted years ago that in the future, the most successful managers would  to know how to ask rather than how to tell. That future is now. Knowledge is too diverse and vast. Accept your limits and embrace your employees’ distinctive expertise.
  • I hate their selfishness. Yeah, well, that battle is over. Management betrayed workers by yanking away job stability, and now it’s every person for him or herself. Selfish? Get over it. Give ‘em what they want. You need them to be happy.
  • I can always get someone else. Sure. But at what cost? Knowledge and expertise are no longer fungible. Goldsmith recommends thinking of your relationships with top talent more as a strategic alliance than an employment contract. If someone isn’t pulling their weight, let them go. But know who your franchise players are. They can’t be easily replaced.

Despite free agency, your people are still your most valuable asset. It’s just that the rules have changed. Figure out who you can afford to lose, who you need to get, and who you need to keep. Then engage them. Listen to them. Meet their needs. Empower them. Treat them as valuable allies.

Your company will thrive. I guarantee it.

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