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Is Career Sacrifice Still Necessary?

We had the privilege of hearing Marc Effron give a lecture the other week. Marc is one of the most respected talent experts in the industry, author of best-selling "One-page Talent Management" and "8 Steps to High Performance", a frequent speaker at major business events, and co-founder of the Talent Management Institute at UNC. In his lecture, he spoke about the “talent production line”, an invaluable metaphor for the work of talent leaders everywhere: we are in the business of producing a consistent flow of talent, based on clear specifications, great raw material, a reliable production (development) process, and an effective distribution strategy. In discussing the production process, and who should receive investment, an interesting discussion ensued. There was widespread agreement: investment should go to those with the most potential. Until we started discussing whether the definition of potential included the willingness to make “personal sacrifices”.

Sacrifice is a given.

Historically, there has been an assumption of personal sacrifice in career advancement. You exchange sacrifices: longer hours, 24/7 availability, extensive travel, relocation... for larger roles, greater influence, better compensation and more opportunities. Top talent knew to expect "that call" and that there were only so many times you could say 'no' to an opportunity.

In Marc's words:

An organization’s ultimate desire when hiring an employee is to find someone who is highly intelligent, has the right mix of personality traits, is highly skilled/capable of the job they will be asked to do, engages in the behaviors that make them both a good citizen and a high performer, gives a meaningful amount of time to work .. .. The more time the organization can get from that individual, the better, since every moment they’re with the organization (up to a still undeterminable point), the organization benefits.

Business wants to identify and invest in those who give more than others, because they return the greatest benefit, including when they give effort at the expense of their personal life.

All things being equal, this was true. Only things aren’t equal.

…or was.

In the session, a question was raised about changing employee expectations, and whether personal sacrifice was still a requirement for career success. Marc says it’s a question he gets regularly. The challenges voiced in regard to the belief that sacrifice is required were twofold.

For some, the idea that companies demand personal sacrifice reflected an outdated notion in the world that has moved on. Enlightened employers understand that the traditional sacrifices expected had negative impacts on inclusion and balance, and represent a macho hangover from the past. And there is evidence for this. Women are certainly disadvantaged in the so-called "greedy careers", that is, careers that demand personal sacrifice. Instead, the idea of work life balance, caring for physical and mental health, considering the whole person ... these were considered the right thing to do.

For others, the argument was an economic one.

The market has spoken. If you want talent, the balance of the sacrifice has shifted: from being the responsibility of the employee, to being on the employer.

When the market shifts, and talent decides, in large numbers, they just won’t make the sacrifice, you run into a problem. For organizations, the challenge is real. The risk is getting 60 hours of a B-talent … instead of 50 hours from an A-talent. We know what we’d prefer. A-Talent.

The implication is that at least one part of the "standard" established for being considered "potential" has changed. And willingness to make personal sacrifice isn't part of that standard anymore.

What has changed?

It begs the question: why now?

The “War for Talent” isn’t new. McKinsey coined the phrase 25 years ago. Since then, the market power of individuals, especially those in knowledge work or with rare technical skills, has grown steadily. Fueled by unprecedented economic growth, the market power for talent became stronger. Despite that, the idea of sacrifice persisted. Then we had a pandemic.

It is as if the pandemic caused mindsets to catch up with market power. Whether it's learning that “life’s too short” (the YOLO mindset), or whether unprecedented flexibility, given out of necessity, opened employees' eyes to what’s possible. Maybe it is just fatigue, and "I just can’t take on another thing". It doesn’t matter what the mechanism is, the result is the same. Attitudes have caught up with market realities, and talent can be selective about sacrifices, while still achieving their potential.

A third leg of the “why now” stool, along with economic power and mindset shift, is technology. The pandemic accelerated technology, driving a marked shift in how work can be done. With new collaboration platforms and tools, and growing familiarity with them, sacrifices, like relocation or long commutes, can be avoided.

So, what do we do?

Pragmatic businesses are responding to the new reality:

  • Re-thinking requirements for career moves. Many companies have adopted alternative ways of working, and have expanded the range of options previously available to employees who were not willing/able to make a geographical move. Some companies allow varied commuting options, or offer short-term projects that can be done remotely, finding ways to leverage great talent in ways that work for the employee.

  • Formalizing flexible arrangements. Many companies are swapping a lack of consistent guidance on virtual work for formal flexibility programs, such as hybrid work models. A corporate standard for flexibility solves for what employees consider as inconsistent or unpredictable flexibility. These arrangements ensure that more talent with potential is developed, and isn't lost to the organization due to perceptions of inflexibility.

  • Reinforcing public image as a progressive company. Many companies are also being public about what they offer, and connect their approach to trust in their workforce, a progressive culture, and similar. They are using their changed expectations to increase their attractiveness in the labor market. They are attracting Talent that has reevaluated their willingness to make personal sacrifice.

In this way, companies are challenging the traditional belief that the highest levels of contribution require traditional sacrifice: relocation, office-based, long hours, constant travel, long commutes and work over family. In the new world of work, A-talent can contribute and be rewarded, because the paradigm of what constitutes “contribution” has changed.

Sacrifice is not necessarily the point. The point is do you have the right people, doing the right thing for the right amount of time?

Final thoughts

This is not an either/or argument. Companies still need to deploy talent to roles that require in-person work. AND the market has shifted, giving employees more bargaining power. AND the new context creates other demands on business, for example, for supporting social, governance, and environmental issues.

Organizations are living organisms: they must respond to their environment or, as Darwin tells us, they don't survive. So whether it's a short-term tactic, or a long-term strategy, the companies that prove to be most responsive to the post-pandemic world are the ones that will thrive.

In our view, the best companies are looking at the context and figuring out that they can, for instance, better access diverse talent by altering their demands on working arrangements, and in doing so they support the environment, build their reputation, reduce their real estate, all while increasing the available talent pool.

The opinions expressed here are the authors' and do not represent the views of

organizations and institutions with whom they are affiliated.

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