How do we define “loyalty” in the Age of Entrepreneurship?

Originally published on Medium  Aug 9, 2015

Growing up I respected cultures and individuals that valued a lifelong bond between an employee and a company. Perhaps that’s because I’ve always found loyalty to be a great indicator of a person’s caliber. Our employers shape and enrich our lives in so many ways (whether that be financially, through professional growth, providing personal opportunities or creating lifelong friendships), I find it not only honorable, but logical to feel a sense of gratitude or even obligation to make a sizable positive impact on that business.

I consider myself extremely lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to spend a few years in an organization that values relationships just as much as outputs. I have been surrounded and supported by a group that encouraged me to try new things, work hard and learn. While in this occupational utopia I noticed a trend: Entrepreneurship was highly a valued trait — even more so than productivity in many cases. In this culture, names like “Bezos,” “Page,” and “Zuckerberg,” were not just models to emulate, they were considered borderline gods. Movies like The Social Network and Jobs launched entrepreneurs into another social stratosphere and inspired swarms of people to take leaps of faith in pursuit of “the next big thing.” What we haven’t looked at is what these so-called idols left in their professional wake. Are we so caught up in the romantic notion of ‘following your passion’ that we are willing to overlook what it took to get there? The decision about when to embark on a new chapter of your career journey should not be taken lightly, especially when it has adverse effects on the companies that have invested significant time and energy into our growth and development.

Entrepreneurship and Courage

I think one of the biggest effects that seeing these unicorn companies rise to fame has had is that we’ve seen a spike of people trying to become “first employees” at rising star companies, chasing that huge pre-IPO equity payout. There is a common perception that these individuals, too, are entrepreneurial. We think them courageous for taking that leap of faith. After all, we imagine entrepreneurs to be this group of free-spirited, charismatic, risk-takers heroically leaping into the unknown in order to trailblaze. When we compare this standard to our images of the aforementioned Zuckerbergs and Pages of the world, this aligns pretty well. Leaving the familiar to step into the unknown is rarely an easy task. That’s why you often hear people speak about leaving their current job to pursue their dream as a “leap of faith,” or an act of courage. I’d agree with that — to an extent. There is a bit of a disconnect, though, between these individuals and those hoping to be a “first employee” at their new company.

If you are leaving a secure, well-paying position to start a new company, try freelancing or even partnering up with some friends at a scrappy startup, you deserve some respect. While it may be selfishly motivated (pursuing personal happiness/hoping for eventual financial gains), that type of risk is one which many would not attempt, and is thus worth a tip of the hat in my opinion. The glorification of entrepreneurs, however, often causes people to self-identify as risk takers & entrepreneurs, when the opposite may in fact be true. In my opinion, taking a job at a shooting star company with a sizable salary is not a particularly courageous thing — though some arguments can be made if you’re moving to an entirely new industry or geographic location. Sometimes, sticking things out at your current company is the courageous thing to do and leaving is the easy way out. There is a huge difference between being an entrepreneur and being a career ladder-climber. This is an important distinction that will help give insight into our own motivations behind what we pursue professionally.

Plainly put, pursuing a new path does not automatically qualify someone as an entrepreneur in my book, and I see the very need to call that out as a symptom of the age in which we live.

What do you owe the business?

For those who want to build something great and feel ready to take the leap there is often a big concern: timing. Not necessarily in a financial sense (though that’s certainly a factor as well), but in a moral sense. I think that in many cases, those of us who struggle with the philosophical question of what we owe our current employer do so because we look at our lives according to rules of equity — give and take — a sense of overall balance and fairness. Many of us feel a moral obligation to give back in some way when we have received. In its simplest utilitarian form, employment is just an exchange of payment for services rendered. Yet, even in that basic form there is an implicit obligation from both sides to meet at a fair medium. That amount can often be found by simply looking at market value. However, for those like myself who take this simple equation and incorporate many more variables — such as skills learned, relationships gained, a sense of autonomy, personal fulfillment, freedom to try new things, etc. — the answer of what is owed back to the business is a lot harder to solve for. I always live by the rule that my dad taught me about being a guest (which I think he learned from the scouts):

Always leave the place better than you found it.

Entrepreneurs are born problem-solvers. A true entrepreneur will find ways to improve his/her surroundings, no matter where it is. It’s in their blood. So, my thought on the matter is, if you can honestly say that you’ve left the company in better shape (to the extent that you could control) than when you began there, then it’s safe to assume that your debt is largely paid. If you aren’t really sure, then you probably haven’t paid it in full yet.

When do you leave?

Last year, I read an article on job-hopping and the impact that it has on salary. The findings really disappointed me. An expert in the article (Christine Mueller, President of TechniSearch Recruiters at the time) recommended that “an employee makes a transition every three to four years for maximum salary gains. Thus, the question is less about whether employees should jump ship, but how long they should they wait before jumping to maximize their salaries and achieve their goals.” The sad thing is that the timeline estimates from Christine are actually considered conservative in some circles. Many recruiting experts will recommend changing jobs as frequently as every two years. When faced with a job market that is constantly encouraging you to leave your company, it’s important to find out where your personal and professional needs lie, and where your employer fits into the equation.

You can think of it like you’re plotting a supply and demand chart. One line represents you —your contributions to the company, your goals, your values & personal priorities, your expectations, etc. The other line represents the company — what it has provided for you in terms of lifestyle, what it has done for you personally, what it has provided for you in opportunities, and how it values you (which can manifest differently from company to company — usually thought of in terms of progression & compensation, though). When you first begin on your professional journey, you often have a ton of “supply” (ideas, contributions, positive outlook, hard-working attitude, company aspirations) but “demand” is pretty low (the value that the business is expecting to see from you, often represented by lower pay, crappy hours, a junior title, etc.). As you continue to prove yourself and provide value to the business — measured in positive outputs, leadership skills, mentorship and hours dedicated, your demand from the business starts to increase — represented by better pay, validation through promotions, awards/recognition programs, more autonomy, perhaps even better stock benefits. Once this cycle begins, both sides should be continuously aiming to hit that perfect medium where the employee feels motivated, valued and committed, and the business feels like it’s getting the maximum value from the employee.

There often comes a point, however, when the demand just…plateaus. Even if supply is continuing strong, for some reason the business just stops showing the employee that they are valued and appreciated. It is at this point, when supply seemingly reverts to exceeding demand and your outputs and contributions are unappreciated/under-appreciated, that most people find themselves looking elsewhere. Like any strong relationship, there needs to be full commitment and effort on both sides; and once that’s gone, it may be time to move on. So, as one who highly values loyalty, my advice to you is this: find your loyalty line. Figure out what makes up the supply curve for you (what you’re putting into the relationship) and what your expectations are from the demand curve (what do you expect to get out of this relationship- benefits? Pay? Recognition? Promotions? Autonomy?). Then, find the realistic point where those two lines should intersect, and ask yourself where you are in relation to that point.

Have you reached that happy medium only to slip back into the high-supply side? If so, and if you’ve truly left the place better than how you found it, it may be time to move on. At that point, there can be no hard feelings. At that point, you can safely say that you’re not a traitor.