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Skin in the Game — What’s in it for me in the workplace

Skin in the Game — Do I Have It at Work, Do I Want to Have It?

Who’s skin is in your game—really? In any event of life we are spectators, watching the outcome with little to lose, or we have a great deal personally on the line–we have skin in the game.

The ultimate example of a participant with “skin in the game” was Philippe Petit, the French tight rope artist, most famous for his walk at a height of 1,400 ft for 45 minutes between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974. He knew that his preparation for the walk was more important and difficult than the walk itself, working with a team of six to extend a 200 ft cable between the two buildings.

Being a tight wire artist was Philippe Petit’s job. He had to give it his all. One mistake, and he paid with this life. Being an observer is much more comfortable than being a participant—especially when you have a long way to fall and a lot to lose.

As An Employee — To What Extent Do I Have “Skin in the Game?”

So what about “skin in the game” on your job–the particular organization you work for? To what extent do you have “skin in the game” in the success of your organization?

As a general rule, people feel less invested in the organizations where they work than they ever did before. That doesn’t necessarily mean they work less hard. People are often earning large salaries, and are willing to work hard to keep that job—for as long as they can. But they don’t necessarily feel they have “skin in the game” as to the success of their organization.

It’s hard to have “skin in the game” when people don’t stay in jobs very long, Job recruiters tell us that people who stay a year or less are hard to place, but it’s hard for employees to invest emotionally at work when the average job tenure is 4.6 years. So that means a lot of people are in jobs less than two years—hardly enough time to create a strong bond.

The Dark History of Job Loyalty — the Legacy of T. Boone Pickens

There’s a dark history of why people are cynical about job loyalty. There was a time when employees loved their organizations and their organizations loved them back. In the 1950s there existed an employee/employer contract. If I lived up to the expectations of my employer, I could count on a career in a company–20 or 30 years with a decent pension at retirement.

But then came T. Boone Pickens. I was working for the Amarillo, Texas Chamber of Commerce in the mid 1980s when the wheels of the employee/employer contract fell off. One of the smartest people I’ve ever known, T. Boone Pickens, was on our board of directors. He is incredibly intelligent, likeable and charismatic.

Boone said organizations had their loyalties all wrong. Loyalty is not to the employee, he passionately and convincingly argued, but to the stockholder/investor. As we increase stockholder equity, we fulfill our responsibility to the organization. Therefore to reduce expenses you lay off employees and apply employee cost like pensions to other parts of the business to increase the value to investors.

The New Rule, the Sad Rule — No “Skin in the Game” for Employees

The rules of the workplace today often leave little reason for employees to have “skin in the game.” The new rule of business is that the organization owes loyalty to stockholders and investors not employees—in the best places of work, employees get gourmet meals and snacks for today, but no guarantee of employment past tomorrow. The most expensive and oldest employees go first. When the organization needs cash for new acquisitions, laying off workers creates one path to profitability.

Why Have “Skin in the Game” as an Employee Today?

Most people in the workplace only have lived with the new rules that there is no security in employment. People today have seen parents and grandparents laid off with limited possibility of becoming employed at the same level. Cynicism is most often the norm about employment.

So why should I have “skin in the game” on my job?

  1. The Rules are What They Are–You Gotta Work Somewhere–Starvation is a Poor Alternative 🙂Necessity wins. Turns out old T. Boone was ahead of his time. In a global economy, a company cannot survive with the same paternalistic rules as the 1950s when the USA was the dominant economic force. Our employment system needs a serious overhaul, but in the meantime, you have to compete to live in this system. That means creating value for your organization and being part of its success. Unless you’re up to beginning your own business, which is far more difficult and unfair than being an employee, you have to create value every day for your organization.
  2. Find a Fascinating Job — Refuse to Work in a Boring Workplace. I’ve always refused to work in a boring job. I was told early on I’d be doing the same thing every day for the rest of my life, and I made up my mind that wouldn’t happen to me. I could have made a lot more money in a more conventional field, but I wouldn’t have all of you to talk to every week. What you do has to be more important to you than where you are.
  3. Save Money — Create Options. One thing that Millennials do that I really admire is they create options by saving money. They know that there will be time between jobs, and you have to have savings to navigate those periods. I think it’s important that when you find yourself in a job that violates your personal values, you have the money to leave. True servitude is the person who can’t leave a job when it’s a terrible situation.I really admire the folks that have created enough options for themselves that they’ll say, “Oh, I just got laid off. I’m going to take this time to visit Asia.” Being leveraged to the hilt is so limiting. Tear up those credit cards and live debt free.
  4. Be a Fleet of Foot Life-long Learner. Most jobs we know now will not exist in ten to twenty years. Artificial Intelligence is a rising river that will sweep away employment as we know it–most jobs that now exist will be gone and that includes highly skilled professions like medicine and personal caregivers who need the infinite patience an anthropomorphized robot can provide better. We have to look down the road and see what’s coming. Be curious and interested in everything and be a compulsive learner. If you love to live in a niche, be certain that niche will go away. You have to dodge, weave, and achieve and find or create your next place.

To live the life you have to have “skin in the game.” Never be a victim, and never give up. I know a lot of people who seem to be engaged in a chess game with life, sure that they will ultimately lose. As a spectator, you will lose. We have to get out onto the wire and walk.

And if you are a leader or business owner…make it your mission to create and nurture the kind of organization that makes people want to have skin in the game. It will be an incredible strategic advantage.

Austin, Texas

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