“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
With 14 short words, LeBron James let America know that the greatest basketball player of a generation was changing teams. The public response that followed was as swift as his announcement. Embittered Cleveland fans poured gasoline on his jersey and set fire to his name. ESPN anchors labeled his actions as ‘traitorous’ and ‘unforgivable.’ The owner of the team wrote a letter (in Comic Sans) saying, ‘the self-declared former King…sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn.’ Since then, LeBron has changed teams twice more, to similarly rabid debate. But for however much as these player movements overtly impact a fanbase, it’s worth considering the broader effects they have on other parts of society. How the sheer combustibility of sports drama has the potential to engulf everything around it — our TV screens, Twitter feeds and perhaps most perniciously, our attitudes towards work. While sports and business have been joined at the hip forever (just think of how much you hear ‘wins’ ‘talent’ and even ‘dropped the ball’ in both contexts), there is one concept perceived to be so integral, so important to both pursuits, that it warrants closer inspection: loyalty.
The average tenure of an employee in 2020 was 4.1 years. In 2006, it was 4 years and in 1983 it was 4.3. Despite it feeling like the volume of conversation surrounding job-hopping has increased in recent years, the actual numbers remain steady. But there’s more to it than that. When we say statistics don’t tell the full story, what we mean to say is that they don’t tell our stories. Of the single dad who lost his job in a chemical processing plant but regained it when a rival business found his resume online and gave him a call out of the blue. Of the technically-trained graduates who took a minimum wage admin role in Los Angeles before a respected apparel brand recognized her talent and brought her on as a fairly paid designer. And of the historically awarded senior marketer who is so precociously talented that a selection of the most powerful brands in the world have clamored for her services in the past 5 years. About that…
On December 28th last year, in the historically peaceful period between Christmas and the new year, AdAge lobbed a grenade into the field of marketing. The article, titled ‘The CMOs Most Likely to Jump Jobs in 2021’, called out Bozoma Saint John, the current Netflix CMO, for her track record of moving companies. It was a hit piece masquerading as a news article, and it rightfully spawned indignation from business professionals online who saw it as a way to undermine a Black woman’s accomplishments in favor of salacious industry gossip. Since then, AdAge has issued an apology and updated the article. Yet the fact that it was published in the first place suggests that for however much we think the notion of professional loyalty has evolved, a stigma still exists. To remove that stigma, we need to shine a light on the modern interpretation of job-hopping and underscore the reasons why business leaders would be best placed to value it when looking to find talent to fill jobs:
1. More experiences = more knowledge
The broad acceptance of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, and subsequent obsession with specialism, threatened to delegitimize the benefits of sampling many pursuits before settling on ‘the one’. That is until David Epstein came along and collated decades of research into one powerful book, Range. In it, he laid out two important reasons that broader experiences produced better outcomes than single-minded specialism: (1) Generalists are better at navigating “wicked” learning environments and (2) Generalists end up with better “match quality.” If we’re to translate that to the corporate world and take a broad base of experiences as a proxy for job-hopping, what we can see is that people who move around a lot are more adept at handling rapidly changing work environments and they’re more likely to be satisfied within that role, leading to increased work output.
2. Improvements to internal training programs
When the power balance starts to shift back to equilibrium, after decades of dominance in favor of the employer, it forces companies to invest in training and development programs to retain great talent, rather than just expect they’ll stay out of an unearned sense of loyalty. Those ongoing development programs are needed now more than ever, with the most recent Gallup poll revealing that 51% of American workers are currently disengaged with work. By improving internal training programs, companies don’t just persuade high-talent employees to stay, they inspire any employee who might be struggling for connection, and increase overall productivity as a result.
3. A more diverse workforce
Below are the percentage of eligible workers who were, at the time of the 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, employed by an organization with whom they’d worked for at least 10 years:
- 22 percent of Hispanic workers
- 23 percent of Black workers
- 26 percent of Asian workers
- 29 percent of White workers
If we were to reconsider our attitudes towards job-hopping, and prioritize talent that didn’t have long, stable periods of employment, people of color would be the biggest and most immediate beneficiaries.
When we cast judgement on LeBron James for changing teams, or do the same for Bozoma Saint-John, what we’re really doing is reinforcing power structures and dangerously outdated tropes. That individuals of incredible talent should feel grateful for even having a job, ignoring the fact that any company in the world would be lucky to have them. Or that they owe their employers something more, beyond the effort they put in and value they create for those employers every single day. By rebalancing the corporate loyalty ledger, we don’t dismiss the corporate lifer, we simply give more power to the individual to find professional satisfaction. In the process, teams become stronger, knowledge spreads faster and workplaces get better. At the very least, we ensure the next person of talent to change teams won’t be forced to endure a barrage of resentment, but rather praised for what their actions are really doing: making us all better.