John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

“Find A Good Company and Stick With It”

November 29, 2010John N. GardnerInsights0

I recalled those words recently when a very important member of my staff paid me a visit to inform me that she was resigning to pursue a powerful personal aspiration, and one that could not be more American: to start her own business (with her husband). This colleague had come to work with me right after college and graduate school and had spent approximately five years as our employee. And she had done a wonderful job and had come to be absolutely invaluable to us. To her generation that is a very long time. To mine, and especially my father’s, it was a drop in the bucket.

My father worked for his “company”, literally 43 years, in an era when one could easily and gladly do that, in an era when companies had social contracts with their employees. I took my father’s advice and “stuck with” my employer, the State of South Carolina, and especially the University of South Carolina, for 32.5 years on a full-time basis, and now for another eleven years on a less than full-time appointment. I know I was greatly influenced by the values of my father.

Back in the 90’s when I was still working full-time for USC I had another young woman employee come to see me one day to tell me she was resigning. I remember vividly what she told me: “John, I have been with you for four years. Nobody in my graduating class has stayed with the same employer for that long out of college. Working for you is not like the real world. You are too good to people”. So off she went and I actually helped her get a next job with a for-profit employer, a textbook publisher.

Another colleague of mine, who decided to move on after eight years told me: “You would have made a great manager in the 50’s. You expect so much loyalty. You are a real dinosaur”. I admit it. Guilty as charged. I still want to try to provide that kind of social contract for my employees.

Had I to do it over again, I would have stayed again for more than three wonderful decades with USC. But I have to admire these younger professionals who are moving on. Perhaps they are more open to change and new experiences than I was. They are certainly risk takers, particularly to do things like start a new business in this economy. They are more willing to get off the track and experiment with new possibilities, to reinvent themselves. They don’t want to grow into advanced middle age wondering how life might have turned out if only that had moved on early from that comfortable job. They have a kind of courage that perhaps I lacked. Maybe it’s just a different kind of courage. And they definitely know how to teach themselves what they need to learn to be successful. Their technological savvy helps them do this. Their ethos does also. Many of them are what my late friend, Al Siebert, called “The Survivor Personality”. I’m a survivor too, but a different kind of one. I found one thing, got very good at it and stuck with it.

I am not saying one course is better than the other, just different. Having such colleagues is certainly interesting and instructive. I certainly can’t change this cultural inclination to move on. I just have to mentor my younger colleagues while I have them and hope that I am helping prepare them well for the inevitable moving on. We all have to focus on what we can reasonably control in our respective spheres of influence and try to influence accordingly and positively within those spheres.

I consider it a privilege to be a part of such lives as they move in, move through, and move on.

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