Mr. Smith Goes to Wall Street

On March 14th Greg Smith, a junior executive at Goldman Sachs resigned in bold fashion from the company after 12 years. Most of you read his op-ed in the New York Times which was either much ado about nothing, or much ado about something, likely a little of both. Anyone who has worked directly with Goldman Sachs knows well that the company is about the company— not clients, not junior employees, and certainly not the greater good. This is not news, and given the nature of high finance should not be surprising or necessarily damning.

But launching long range missiles at Goldman Sachs isn’t the point of Mr. Smith’s open letter as far as I see it. The letter isn’t about the ills and evils of his former employer and in a great regard it isn’t even about Smith himself. His letter is about a cultural tectonic shift in employment that is taking place at companies large and small. We were warned the shift was coming.

For years we in management have been talking about Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, etc. We have read countless articles and blogs on how different they are from the prior generations we have managed. We have attended seminars which told us how we would have to structure our companies, and communicate, set schedules, honor different values, etc. We know the under-35s have lived a much different existence than the over 40-s and have a different view of themselves, the world, and what work means.

Greg Smith pointed this out in a fairly productive way. What I hope he was trying to say is that today’s educated, capable, and engaged young workforce wants more than just a job. They want to align their talents with companies that demonstrate values, purpose beyond the boundaries of the financial statements, a mission that is laudable and creates long term financial and social value, and a company that believes and demonstrates that people are its heart and soul. They want their work to leave a legacy. An amazing concept for young people, isn’t it?

To that Greg, I say, AMEN brother.

Smith writes about the necessity of having pride and belief in the company. How often do you hear these words used in companies today aside from the pablum of their promotional mission statements. Do your employees use these words to describe how they feel about their workplace? Do your customers use these words to describe what they experience when they interact with the people of your company? Important questions indeed.

And a timely question I might add. Link what Mr. Smith writes about to the small element of the Occupy movement noise that made any sense. Occupy, on its face, is a misguided mess there is no doubt. But, in the supposed outrage there may have been a salient point: many employees, consumers, investors, and vendors are yearning to work for and with companies that have a soul. Most of us want our work, our patronage, our willingness to promote, and help grow companies to be reflected in more than short term profits and discarded packaging. As Americans, we want to respect companies again as pillars of society. Companies that are parasites on society leave a bad taste. Companies can and should both do well and be good. Give us companies that think about the next 50 years, not the next 3 quarters.

Ironically, this younger group of people that have been labeled the next "me" generation really may be the most pay-it-forward generation we have known since the "greatest generation" of the 1930s and 1940s. In fact they may turn out to be more impressive than the "greatest generation" if they stick to their principles. The greatest generation had the benefit of starting with a pretty dilapidated foundation. Going up was nearly the only option.

This current generation came in when things were pretty good, standards very high, and expectations even higher. And what I hear them saying is that they aren’t intimidated by all that, but, if they are going to dedicate themselves to creating something it is going to be to create something big, meaningful, better than ever, and lasting. Wow! How cool is that.

The economy is picking up. We are in the early moments of building momentum. Companies are going to have to hire people to take part in the growth that is forthcoming. It will be a war for talent all over again. But this time the "talent" has conditions that must be met before they say yes to you.

As you recruit your future leaders, your brain trust, the fuel for your engine, they will want all the financial condiments that have come to be part of the equation; base, bonus, options, benefits, perks, etc. Then they will say to you, "…and"?

Does your company have a soul? Do you stand for something and demonstrate it every day? Does your leadership behave in public and behind closed doors in a manner that is in keeping with your mission statement and professed values? Are you committed to helping your employees reach their potential and through their work become the full embodiment of that potential?

If you can answer yes to most of these questions, get ready to prosper. You are going to have a great run in the coming years and the best and brightest will beat a path to your door.

If you answer no or "what a bunch of drivel"…well, prepare to be lonely and prepare to lose.

Power to the people!