Real “Wartime” Warriors

SDRandCo (22)

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Success, today, remains partly psychological: I moved the needle! But to an unprecedented extent, especially for people in the wartime economy, success became largely financial.  Many people, especially younger ones in start-ups, expected to gain millions of dollars in just a few years of hard work. They all personally knew many people who became millionaires. For many dot-comers, success included the chance to earn a fortune. It was staggering for a depression-impacted person like me to hear someone in their twenties say, $10 million is chump change.

Many people know people who were simply in the right place. San Diego, for example,  has hundreds of QUALCOMM millionaires, lots of them competent but not outstanding managers and professionals whose options are currently worth between one and five million dollars. The possibility of being a millionaire moved from the rarified air of Tiffany’s to the more ordinary venue of Macy’s.

Gurus, consultants and shrinks have long asserted that people don’t work for money. How naïve can “experts” be?

In the second half of the 1990’s, especially, success involved amounts of money that were unimaginable just a few years before. Options, in particular, sometimes made people so rich that they were (and are) free to live all the choices they can imagine in a lifetime. That is a transformational amount of money. While founders became billionaires, many employees became millionaires. It was as though everyone in the neighborhood won the lottery. Would that kind of money motivate people? Does the moon rise at night?

“Peacetime” organizations that are slow because of caution and bureaucracy, that are intrinsically hierarchical and competitive instead of collaborative, where people hire others who are less able than they are, and which punish for creative failure irrespective of the reasonableness of the effort, cannot attract wartime people.

Despite the dot-com crash that began in April 2000, post-IPO wartime companies are still in constant danger of losing their members to a start-up and its inexpensive options.  And peacetime organizations who also need very skilled, effective and talented people, especially technical people must compete financially in order to attract and retain them.  That’s why peacetime organizations need more than one compensation system.

The possibility of lots of money also attracted people to wartime organizations who were not intrinsically confident and optimistic. Thus, the desirability and availability of transformational amounts of money can make for Bad Fits.

It is a bad fit between the employee and the organization when people join wartime companies because the money is so seductive, but, lacking confidence, they’re not prepared for the chaotic, fast-paced and extremely demanding 24/7 conditions that are normal in pre-IPO wartime start-ups.Will a less ebullient economy change the financial expectations and goals of people who chose to join wartime start-ups? Pragmatically, that partly depends on the length and severity of a downturn. It also depends on people’s personal history and the outcome of their experiences.

People’s priorities, goals and values take years to formulate and they don’t change in the course of a year or two. Whether wartime warriors change their expectations and work requirements will be largely influenced by what happens in the economy over the next 5 to 10 years.

Even after April 2000, young people in their 20s and just out of school are the group with the highest expectations because they’ve grown up in a heady economy.  In a survey done in February 2001, college students remained incredibly bullish. They expected quick and immediate success in terms of promotions and compensation. While 81 percent thought it would take them 10 years or less to achieve their career goals, 48 percent thought it would take 5 years or less. One student said, It is true that it takes time to succeed, and I think that two to 5 years should be enough.

But, with little or no prior work or recession experience, most are likely to become disenchanted with the dream of quick riches if irrational exuberance doesn’t return. Their lack of experience with the normal cycles of the economy will lead most of them to exaggerate the short time negative and ignore the long term positive. These young people didn’t have enough experience coping with harder times to develop the skills to do it or the confidence that they could. Especially as they move into marriage and become parents, reasonable economic security will become more attractive to many of them than the risky ride to riches.

Many people, of all ages, were personally challenged by hundreds and thousands of stories of people just like them who made it big in dot-coms. This group left peacetime corporate and professional careers to get in on the action. Some were drawn by the chance to make big money, some had more modest goals and just wanted to earn economic security for life, and almost all wanted to prove to themselves that they, too, had the right stuff. People who had selected peacetime careers in the first place never had the mindset of entrepreneurs and most were more fearful of risk than energized by it. This population will return to relatively safer conditions, including the large, successful Web companies like eBay, unless something akin to the last decade’s soaring market returns.

The real wartime warriors are people for whom high risk and fast change are vastly more preferable than security and predictability. These people are risk creators and when they achieve success, they do something that is incomprehensible to people with less self-confidence: they leave the arena in which they’ve succeeded and begin to do something else. The youngest of this group are in their mid-30s, veterans of the major lay-offs of the 1980s and early 90s. Confident, they may leave the battle-scarred turf of dot-coms but that’s only to move into the next sector that promises a shot at moving the needle and huge payoffs. These people are so confident and optimistic that they really are different from everyone else.



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