Longevity Doesn’t Reward The Innovator

Creative professions that innovate like coding, engineering, and design need career turnover to stay fresh. When I see innovator work anniversaries over ten years I feel sad. Over twenty, and I genuinely feel bad for them. If the number of years is thirty or more, I feel sincerely depressed. Note, I am impressed by their loyalty and perseverance but not their creative drive. Longevity is only good when it stays full with learning and growth.

Years ago, people worked for one business their whole life and then retired, frequently with a good, employer-provided pension. Years ago, people used home phones. Years ago, people read newspapers. Years ago, you had to shop in an actual store to buy hobbist gear. Today, there is precious little left of any of those. Innovator corporate monogamy should go the way of the dodo as well.

Here is the truth: big businesses don’t care about their employees. There is no reward or honor for a lifetime of loyalty to a company. The employees are “curmudgeons” or “stuck-in-the-past” or “old-timers” who “just don’t get it.” Although, I hear some version of “people are our biggest asset” all the time, I rarely see evidence of this. I have actually been asked to manage out people near the end of their career.

If a business doesn’t care about you, why do you stay with them? My hypothesis: because you’ve settled. You’re most creative and innovative years are done. You’ve stopped learning. You saw your world as the size of your department or the size of your business. You stopped trying new things because the business didn’t like it. You stopped being a true innovator.

You matter to a business as long as you’re boosting revenue or cutting costs and are getting along with your boss. There is still some humanity and mistakes are occasionally forgiven, but rarely without career impact. Few are the “Jack Welch blows up lab and eventually ends up as GE’s CEO” stories today. Innovators must experiment and be risky.

As an innovator, I am constantly looking for improvements: little to big, incremental to disruptive. An innovator never settles. They never accept the status quo. They never “get used to it.” An innovator pushes. Rules aren’t there to be followed, they’re there to be challenged as opportunity shows itself. Their internal drive frequently forces them to try stuff that gets them in trouble as they push the boundaries. Innovators never settle.

So, when I see an R&D employee celebrating 16 years (like I did on LinkedIn this week), I have to wonder how effective they still are at innovating. One thing is for certain, it’s not as much as it used to be. To me, that’s not something to celebrate, that’s something to mourn.

Don’t get stuck in the rut. If you’re in an innovator role and you’re approaching or past the ten year mark at your current employer, you may need to move on, or find yourself obsolete.

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