My 16-month old nephew inspires today’s posting. The other day, while watching a video of him, I couldn’t help be amazed at the vastness of his world. This is true both in physical space and size relative to his little body. He lives in a small town in Nebraska, but it couldn’t seem larger to him. I often envision him in twenty years. This seemingly large world will in fact turn out to be very small. Nearly every adult male in his area works for the railroad or in some capacity of agriculture. The physical space won’t change, but the world of opportunity will become increasingly smaller. This reminds me of the time when I worked at a small service provider. In addition to my assigned tasks, I found myself embracing every opportunity around me to learn the industry and contribute to the success of the company. For example, I found myself taking on such endeavors as redesigning the company logo as well as producing the company’s first report guide (200 pages of fun). Simultaneously, I was learning about IT, security and the fastest way to stuff six pages into a number ten-size envelope. I embraced every task as an opportunity to learn, make mistakes, take chances and be accountable for parts of jobs that extended beyond the scope of any job description. Best of all, I was not alone in this. My colleagues all put in similar efforts. During this time, my coworkers and I were earning far less than others working in our industry. In fact, the company’s first employee bonuses weren’t paid until our third year of operation and the top recipient received $1,000! Yet we could not have felt more gratification for the work being done.
I never learned more. My world was never bigger.
A few years later the company had been acquired for the second time. After the first acquisition I asked for and received a large raise. After the second acquisition I received a nice chunk of equity. While my pay was growing my world was shrinking. I was no longer able to create logos; there was a department of people in a separate building responsible for marketing. I could no longer grab a few people after work and brainstorm on a holistic solution to the day’s grand problem. Everything had been compartmentalized and while many were now responsible for something, very few were accountable for anything. It is probably not a coincidence that the equity I received after the second acquisition eventually expired without me making a dime. It was a perfect example of a big company offering a small world.
I never earned more. My world was never smaller.
The small company ran well, but it barely made a profit. Although the company just squeaked by each year, it redefined an industry. In fact, a large percentage of the company’s original employees have gone on to run their own successful businesses in that industry. When I have an opportunity to speak with any one of them, they continue to speak fondly, almost longingly, of the days when we made almost no money, but the world was at our fingertips. As a result, the company grew, the employees grew and the owners made millions.
The big company that our small company became a part of also ran well. It still makes billions of dollars annually. I often speak with people from this company as well. (It should be noted that the two groups are almost mutually exclusive.) The employees who were at the big company years ago have mainly stayed there. The exceptions are generally victims of the almost annual layoffs. The survivors still moan about compensation and bonuses even though their income dwarfs even the CEO's pay from the small company; few of them seem truly happy. Their world is a ladder under a narrow spotlight with rungs that are too far apart for most to reach.
The behavioral psychologist, Abraham Maslow has been quoted: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problemas a nail.” We often hear that money is not the strongest motivating factor for employees. But when your only tool is compensation, you tend to look at every problem as pay-related. We tend to offer more innovative and expensive ways to entice people to stay in their little world. We augment this with more information, recognition programs and clearer paths to job advancement.
I am not suggesting that any of these things is wrong. I am simply suggesting that we try and offer them the world first and money second.