This month marks the 30th anniversary of starting my first job in corporate America. I know. I don’t look that old. Right??? Thanks for humoring me.
So I have been a bit nostalgic about my career (so far) and the changes I’ve seen. I rarely spend time on this blog looking BACK, but if you’ll oblige me this once, I’d like to make a few observations about the changing nature of work that may surprise you:
Of course this is the most obvious difference … and I’m not the type of person to re-state the obvious! But to set the stage, there was no:
- Mobile devices
- Personal computers
My first corporate job was to be in the office by 6:30 a.m. every morning to create a global executive summary of economic, industry, competitor, and customer news. I read paper magazines and newspapers, cut out the important articles with scissors and taped them to paper for photocopying. I typed summaries of the articles on a new-fangled device called a “word processor” which then printed the document so it could be faxed to corporate offices around the world. The advent of personal computers and the Internet has been so profound that I could not possibly even cover it if I wrote for a month. When email was introduced, my boss fought it tooth and nail. You see, some things never change.
I count myself lucky to have witnessed the tail-end of the “MadMen” period of business culture. When I started my career in 1982, it was a white-skinned, starched-collar, chain-smoking, Ivy League, martini-swilling group of guys running corporate America. I was taken to many business lunches to drink at the all-men, all-white private business clubs that were in every major American city. I am proud to say that when the chairman of my company, Charles Parry, took his rotation as the president of the private club in Pittsburgh, he walked through the front door with our company’s treasurer, an African-American, and smashed that rule forever. I was so proud of that! Today, business is for everyone. But it was not that long ago that business was an elitist, blue-blooded sport.
The reaction time in business has accelerated mightily. Back in the early 80s you had more time to think and gather your response because you could duck and hide behind the slow communication network. If people wanted information from you, they basically had to call you on the phone. The OFFICE phone. So there was no ubiquitous availability like we have now. If a reporter needed information for a controversial story, there were endless ways to delay and turn the situation around in your favor. It was an important skill! Because of the relatively slow communications, there was a lot more downtime built into the decision-making processes.
The political world was radically different then. Russia (USSR) and Eastern Europe were closed markets. There was little trade with China and certainly no China supply chain strategy other then British-controlled Hong Kong. Other than Europe, America still had a very U.S.-focused market and supply chain. We still made stuff here. The lack of real-time communication options was a big hurdle to global trade.
Company life back then was pretty rigid. I wore a suit and tie to work every day until around 1992 when “casual Fridays” started to loosen things up. It was a 9-5 world. There was no working from Starbucks … I think you could make an argument that mobile devices created Starbucks. As a young employee, my first office had a leather couch and a globe. Yes, I’ll admit … that was cool. But there was a big trade-off. All this rigidity and lack of technology made for a real lack in …
Here are the number of friends I had who started their own company in the 1980s — zero. To start a company then, you generally had to MAKE something. That meant investing in manufacturing assets — which also meant securing a bank loan, physical work space, employees, and a support infrastructure. To start something new, you had to have experience, money, and connections.
Compare this to my recent profile of Xavier Damman, the founder of Storify. He does not have a college degree and never worked for a company. Xavier wrote computer code in his apartment in Belgium, teaching himself how to create a start-up company by searching the Internet. After 18 months he had the foundation of his company in place to the point where he got $3 million in venture capital funding so he could move to San Francisco and build his company. Now that is cool.
I think a major shift in work life is represented by the growing emphasis on personal accountability.
When you joined a company, you embarked on a “career path” that relied on building a personal network and gathering enough company-sponsored training programs to propel you to the next level. Companies viewed employees as long-term strategic investments. Honestly, this created a lot of dead weight in the company structure.
Today, corporate cultures are built on flexibility and viewing employees as interchangable parts. Employees are responsible for their own training and career path. If you don’t remain relevant, you will be jettisoned and replaced.
The bottom line
Other than being able to strategically hide from my boss through elaborate games of telephone tag, there is really only one thing I miss from “the old days.” Today we maintain business relationships through email, text messages, maybe even Facebook or an enterprise social media utility like Yammer. I have customers who I have never met. Back then “team building” was a physical activity like golf, fishing, or dinner at a nice restaurant. Nobody has time for physical events any more and I miss that. It was a lot of fun and it created life-long friendships. You really could have relationship-based selling. I think those days are gone, for the most part.
Well, I have written nearly 1,000 blog posts and this is the first one about “the old days” and it may be the last. Obviously this could have been a VERY long article, but I kept it to a minimum and hope you found it mildly interesting. What are some other major changes that you’ve observed in how business works today?