The New Employer-Employee Compact

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 7.03.26 PMI’m delighted to share our new article in this month’s Harvard Business Review titled: Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact. Here’s the all-on-one-page web version, here’s the social-enabled web version, here it is in PDF form with the graphical layout from the print magazine.

In the time since The Start-Up of You was published, Reid and I have been asked about the book’s implications on managers at larger organizations. How should great leaders recruit, train, and retain entrepreneurial people into their company — the kind of proactive people who read Start-Up of You to mange their career?

That’s the question we sought to address in the article, first by describing the new compact that now defines the overall relationship between employer and employee, and then by enumerating the compact’s three key features. We think it’s a critical perspective for CEOs, senior managers, and HR execs everywhere when developing a 21st century talent strategy.

If you’re a manager, check out the article and let me know what you think. There’ll be much more to come on this theme.


Sign up for a special live webcast on June 6th, 2013 for an event happening on the LinkedIn campus featuring Reid, our HBR editor Justin Fox, and a few senior HR execs, discussing the themes of the article. We’d love to have you.


On a personal note, it was a special pleasure to team up with my longtime partner-in-crime, Chris Yeh, who co-authored the article with Reid and me. (Photo credit: Fredrik Broden)

Status and Power Drive Social Dynamics in Business


An excerpt from The Start-Up of You, as featured on LinkedIn.

If you want to maintain relationships with busy, powerful people, you have to pay special attention to the role of status. Status refers to a person’s power, prestige, and rank within a given social setting at a given moment in time. There is no one pecking order in life; status is relative and dynamic. David Geffen is high status in the entertainment world, for example, but perhaps comparatively less so if Steven Spielberg is in the room. Likewise, Brad Pitt is high-status, but put him in a room full of software engineers when the project at hand involves coding, and his status is irrelevant. The President of the United States is often referred to as the most powerful man in the world, yet there are things Bill Gates can do that the president cannot, and still other things that Oprah Winfrey can do that Gates cannot. A person’s status depends on the circumstances and on who’s around.

You won’t read about status in most business and career books. It is a topic often dodged in favor of bromides like “Treat people with respect” or “Be considerate of the other person’s time.” Good advice, but not the whole story. The business world is rife with power jostling, gamesmanship, and status signaling, like it or not. It’s especially important to understand these dynamics when you work with people more powerful than you.

Before Robert Greene became a bestselling author, he worked for an agency in Hollywood that sold human-interest stories to magazines, film producers, and publishers. His job was to find the stories. A competitive person, Greene wanted to be the best, and sure enough, as he recalls, he was finding more stories that got turned into magazine articles, books, and movies than anyone else in his office.

One day, Greene’s supervisor took him aside and told him that she wasn’t very happy with him. She was not specific, but she made it clear that something just wasn’t working. Greene was befuddled. He was producing lots of stories that were being sold—wasn’t that the point? There was something else. He wondered if he was not communicating well. Perhaps it was just an interpersonal issue. So he focused more on engaging her, communicating, and being likeable. He met with his boss to go over his process and his thinking. But nothing changed—except for his ongoing success at finding really good stories to sell. Later, during a staff meeting, the tensions boiled over, and the supervisor interrupted the meeting and told Greene he had an attitude problem. No more detail, just that he wasn’t being a good listener and had a bad attitude.

A few weeks later, after being tortured by the vague criticisms despite his solid work performance, Greene quit. A job that should have been a stellar professional success had turned into a nightmare. Over the course of the next several weeks, he reflected on what had gone wrong with his boss.

He had assumed that what mattered was doing a great job and showing everyone how talented he was. While doing a great job was certainly necessary, he concluded it was not enough. What he failed to recognize was how his personal talents might make his boss look diminished in the eyes of others. He failed to navigate the status dynamics around him; failed to account for the insecurities, status anxieties, and egos of everyone else. He failed to build relationships with the people above him and below him on the totem pole. And ultimately, he paid the price with his job.

Everyone Is Equal, and Yet Everyone Is Not Equal

All men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights guaranteed regardless of gender, race, or religion. If a man commits a crime, he may lose his liberty but not his basic human rights such as food and humane living conditions (at least in enlightened societies, anyway). No one is more human than the next person. If you breathe, you deserve basic dignity. Period.

But in other ways, people are not equal. We do not live in an egalitarian society. People make different choices. Good luck falls on some more than others. Compare two men who work in finance, wear a suit and tie every day, and live in New York City. On the surface they may seem to be equal in status, but in reality one person will always be (and be perceived as) relatively more accomplished, powerful, rich, intelligent, busy, or famous than the other.

Status differences—both real and perceived—bear on how you are expected to act in different social situations. The following scenarios show how inappropriate power moves can offend someone of equal or higher status, and how to avoid making them.

Example #1: You email the vice president in charge of hiring at a company you want to work for. You send your résumé and propose to meet at a coffee shop near your house.

Analysis: A meeting should usually be made more convenient for the higher status person. That means at the time and location best for him or her. When corresponding with higher-status people, propose to meet “in or near your office.”

Example #2: You show up late to a meeting with a fellow product manager.

AnalysisTardiness is the classic power move because it says, “My time is more valuable than yours, so it’s okay for you to wait for me.” To be sure, we’ve all been late due to circumstances out of our control, so it’s not always a reliable signal. But usually it says something. Think about it: Would you allow yourself to be late to a meeting with Barack Obama? Certainly not.

Example #3: You and your coworker are both marketing assistants at your company. He mentions he’s working on a sales proposal. You proactively say, “I’d be more than happy to take a look and tell you how it could be improved.”

Analysis: Sounds harmless? Usually it is harmless. But be careful. When you make the unsolicited offer to tell someone how they can improve, you’re implying that you are able to see flaws in his work that he cannot see, and that he ought to be happy to accept your feedback. If the other person sees himself as your peer, he may not view you as someone who should be telling him how to improve, and may be resentful rather than appreciative.


Remember, even if you aren’t trying to signal you are more powerful, an inadvertent power move is still a power move, and it can irritate decision makers you’d rather impress.

The conclusion is not to suck up to people of higher status. Slavishly affirming everything an important person says is unimpressive, to say nothing of dishonest. Nor is the answer to disrespect people of lower status or to flaunt superiority. Presenting yourself as a Big Deal repels people below you, who won’t feel inspired or loyal. It also repels people above you, who will interpret your braggadocio as insecurity. Rather, the point is that some people require a bit more finesse. If you want to build a relationship with someone of higher status, know that you are supposed to be accommodating.

The social terrain at the highest levels of power and influence can be treacherous. If you wish to cultivate and strengthen ties with your boss, boss’s boss, top officials, or other people in high places, think about how the power imbalance affects your expected social behavior. A little bit of conscientiousness in this department goes a long way.

Career Advice for New Grads

Graduating this spring or know someone who is? Check out this new Start-Up of You inspired slideshow from our team — it captures some key career insights for new grads in a very visually appealing way.

One Year Anniversary Slideshare: Start-Up of You Executive Summary

A year ago, we launched The Start-Up of You. To celebrate the anniversary, we put together a 190 slide deck on Slideshare summarizing the key themes. It’s beautiful, with vivid images accompanying text. In just over 24 hours, it’s been viewed more than 100,000 times.

(Thanks to Ian Alas for his work on this.)

Department of Cultural Differences, Book Cover Edition

The Start-Up of You is available in over 15 countries. More forthcoming! Fun to see the current gallery of foreign covers. Cultural differences abound.

UK Italy
Japan Portugal
Germany Holland
France Russia
Spain Brazil

How Large Is Your Network? What Does Dunbar’s Number Really Mean?

Dunbar’s Number is one of the most misunderstood concepts in sociology. We address it somewhat quickly in The Start-Up of You. In Reid’s latest LinkedIn post, we explain the nuance behind limits to the number of people in your network:

Imagine you receive a digital camera with a built-in memory card for your birthday. You bring it on a six-month trip to Africa where you won’t have access to a computer—so all the photos you want to keep must fit on that one memory card. When you first arrive you snap photos freely, and maybe even record some short videos. But after a month or so, the memory card starts filling up. Now you’re forced to be more judicious in deciding how to use that storage. You might take fewer pictures. You might decide to reduce the quality/resolution of the photos you do take in order to fit more. You’ll probably cut back on videos. Still, inevitably, you’ll hit capacity, at which point if you wish to take new photos you’ll have to delete old ones.

Just as a digital camera cannot store an infinite number of photos and videos, you cannot maintain an infinite number of relationships. Which is why, even if you are judicious about your choices, at some point you hit a limit, and any new relationship means sacrificing an old one.

The maximum number of relationships we can realistically manage—the number that can fit on the memory card, as it were—is described as Dunbar’s Number, after evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. But maybe it shouldn’t be. In the early nineties, Dunbar studied the social connections within groups of monkeys and apes. He theorized that the maximum size of their overall social group was limited by the small size of their neocortex. It requires brainpower to socialize with other animals, so it follows that the smaller the primate’s brain, the less efficient it is at socializing, and the fewer other primates it can befriend. He then extrapolated that humans have an especially large neocortex and so should be able to more efficiently socialize with a great number of humans. Based on our neocortex size, Dunbar calculated that humans should be able to maintain relationships with no more than roughly 150 people at a time. To cross-check the theory, he studied anthropological field reports and other clues from villages and tribes in the hunter-gatherer era. Sure enough, he found the size of surviving tribes tended to be about 150. And when he observed modern human societies, he found that many businesses and military groups organize their people into cliques of about 150. To wit: Dunbar’s Number of 150.

But Dunbar’s research is not exactly about the total number of people that any one person can know. The research focused on how many nonhuman primates (and humans, but only by extrapolation) can survive together in a tribe. Of course, group limits and the number of people you can know are closely related concepts, especially if you consider everyone in your life to be part of your social group. Yet most of us define our total social group more broadly than Dunbar did in his research. Survival in the modern world doesn’t depend on having direct, face-to-face contact with everyone in our social network/group, as it did for the tribes he studied.

Regardless of how you parse Dunbar’s research, what is definitely the case is that there is a limit to the number of relationships you can maintain, if for no other reason than the fact that we have only twenty-four hours in each day. But, contrary to popular understanding of Dunbar’s Number, there is not one blunt limit. There are different limits for each type of relationship. Think back to the digital camera. You can either take low-resolution photographs and store one hundred photos in total, or you can take high-resolution photographs and store forty. With relationships, while you can only have a few close buddies you see every day, you can stay in touch with many distant friends if you only email them once or twice a year.

But there’s a twist. While the number of close allies and weak ties you can keep up is limited, those aren’t your only connections. You can actually maintain a much broader social network that exceeds the size of the memory card. It’s by smartly leveraging this extended network that you fully experience the power of I-to-the-We.

Your extended network are your 2nd and 3rd degree connections. Read the whole post for more.

Lessons and Reflections from Publishing the Start-Up of You

I just published a long article/essay on the process of publishing The Start-Up of You. In addition to sharing background on how Reid and I came to partner on the book, I share lessons learned and insights on the key editorial questions that define a book, how to ask for and incorporate feedback from early readers, the reality of self-doubt and self-dissapointment that’s part of the process in a project like this, and much more. I hope it’s useful for authors and entrepreneurs alike. Since it’s long, I suggest printing or viewing in Readability mode for your convenience. Enjoy!

Start-Up of You Student Fellowship

We’re pleased to announce the Start-Up of You Student Fellowship for current college students. Reid and I want to recognize current college students who are especially entrepreneurial in their life and career — and empower them to do even more. Fellows will be part of an exclusive network during the fall 2012 semester. If you’re a student or know someone who is, learn more about the fellowship here and about our general student outreach here. Hurry – application deadline is July 31!


Odds and ends:

  • Over 500 of you shared your ideas for how you want to take on risk in your career in our post on the Four Hour Workweek blog. We picked the best three stories (from so many inspiring ones!) and now it’s time to vote on who should win the mentorship prize.
  • A great 25 minute video profile from Bloomberg Game Changers on Reid, featuring commentary from Eric Schmidt, Dave Goldberg, Mark Pincus, and Jeff Weiner.

How to Take Intelligent Risk and Become Resilient to Anything

Reid and I wrote a long post on how to take intelligent risk in your career and become resilient to anything. It contains some of my favorite material from one of the key chapters of The Start-Up of You. Leave a comment over on the 4HWW post, introduce yourself, and tell us:

- What change do you want to make in your career in the next 30-60 days? (e.g. Change jobs, ask for a raise, find a new opportunity within your company)
- How are you thinking about the risk involved in this move?

We’ll select the person who leaves the most thoughtful comment no later than 5pm PST, June 21 (Thursday), and personally invest in making that person’s next career move successful.

Here’s what we can offer:

- Over email and in a 30-minute phone call, we’ll suggest relevant opportunities, key people to meet, and provide motivational support. The initial 30-minute call will be with me (Ben), and the follow-up emails will include Reid.
- Two signed copies of The Start-Up of You.
- Your story will be highlighted in our LinkedIn Group.
- Free Linkedin Premium subscription


New to this blog? Here are some popular posts over the years.

Are You Network Literate?

It was fun being back on public radio’s Marketplace this week, with a commentary on network literacy.

Here’s the opening:

Bill Gates once wrote that “The most meaningful way to… put distance between you and the crowd is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage, and use information,” Gates wrote, “will determine whether you win or lose.”

What’s hard is that the information modern professionals need is always changing. Simply stockpiling facts and knowledge won’t get you anywhere. Rather, you need to know how to access the information you need, when you need it.

You can listen to the audio on the page or embedded below.