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Are today’s executives more like the free agents we associate with sports teams than the ‘company man’ of days (and years) gone by?

As the market continues to develop, we will see even more parralels with the world of sport? Will tomorrow's star performers be traded for a transfer fee? Will they expect a signing fee as well as their salary? It's an interesting thought...

Some time ago, I saw a question on LinkedIn about  how the  behaviour of executives is changing. The questioner (Bradley Foster) asked:

"Are today’s executives more like the free agents we associate with sports teams than the ‘company man’ of days (and years) gone by?

A lot of the executives I coach are more like lone wolves than what we have come to think of executives as team players who are loyal to the company they serve. Are executives more like the free agents we associate with sports teams than the ‘company man’ of days (and years) gone by? "

There are two questions here. First, is the premise correct (that executives have become free agents)? Second, we could ask whether this is a good, bad or neutral thing.

Certainly, executives (and as one repondent pointed out most other employees) are acting more like free agents. The rise of personal branding, interim executives, constant project-based change, and the superstar CEO all point to a job market that is becoming more like Hollywood or sports than the world of work that we grew up with. I’ve worked in organisations where an incoming executive brought his whole team with him, lock, stock and barrel, from his last job, almost like the arrival of a consultancy team.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? A lot of the responses seem to suggest that it is. While stability is needed at some point in an organisation, to calm stakeholder jitters, the world is chaning at an unprecedented pace. Business evolutions that used to take decades can now occur in a matter of months. Different managers have different skills which suit some situations better than others, so the flexibility of skill set that comes from executives acting like consultants can be an asset.

At the same time, its too easy  for an executive to make changes then not be around to reap the rewards or catch the fallout. Consultants may still have a contractual responsibility for the consequences of their advice after they leave; former managers generally don’t. In that respect the new market could swing too far towards engendering irresponsibility. And corporate governance issues of the last few years seem to support this, which is why external regulation has become so much more more essential.

On the whole, like all freedoms, the change is neutral. It’s what individual executives do with their new found freedom that will be good or bad. As a culture we need to get used to this new way of working, and accept that changes at the top are not necessarily a sign of things going wrong, or indicative of poor performance by a manager. At the same time, we need to get away from the idea of paying off bad executives (as some recent leaving bonuses have been perceived) and return to rewarding good performers and penalising the bad.

As the market continues to develop, we will see even more parralels with the world of sport? Will tomorrow’s star performers be traded for a transfer fee? Will they expect a signing fee as well as their salary? It’s an interesting thought…

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