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Article by Mohan Babu

Professional lessons from Andersen’s fall

Many of Arthur Andersen’s employees have known only one employer since they graduated, and may find it hard to find themselves joining the burgeoning ranks of unemployed professionals. MOHAN BABU focuses on the fickle nature of the corporate world

The biggest tree makes the most noise when it falls—so goes an old saying. Arthur Andersen, until a few months ago was a hallowed part of the “Big Five”, and the best and brightest from top universities around the world vied to join its ranks. And then came the Enron fiasco, with it the “100-year-flood” (as Andersen executives like to call it). This 100-year-flood has already dragged the firm into an inextricable jam, which some suspect may lead to its disintegration. The collapse of the company is especially catastrophic for the thousands of bright young professionals who bet their future on the organisation. Many of them have known only one employer since they graduated, and may find it hard to find themselves joining the burgeoning ranks of unemployed professionals, especially in the current job market. This story brings home the fickle nature of the corporate world in which we live. The story also highlights the need for professionals to prepare themselves to plan for sudden changes in their careers. If a solid company like Arthur Andersen can start faltering in a matter of just a few months, who is to say that the company you or I work for is going to remain forever?

A few weeks ago, I read an interesting book titled Free Agent Nation, in which the author Daniel Pink talks extensively about the paradigm shift in the workforce. The author spent a few months travelling across America, researching and talking with people, and concluded that the job-market as we know it is changing. Modern day employees are starting to question the future of their jobs, and are preparing to mitigate the losses in case of unforeseen events leading to loss of jobs. Pink sees the emergence of moonlighting as one of the ways in which professionals are trying to hedge their bets in a changing world. The author goes on to add, “Moonlighting is a way to diversify your human capital investments—and hedge against the risk of your company collapsing or your job disappearing. In some sense, we’re all moonlighters, because in every sense, we’re all risk managers.”

The job market as we know it is undergoing a sea change. Job guarantee, or a career for life is already passé, and professionals entering the job market today can no longer expect the assurance of lifetime employment in return for their “loyalty”. This is the reality not just in the US but in other parts of the world too. I hear that layoffs are becoming more commonplace (at least in the IT industry) in India too. If layoffs are a reality, are individuals prepared for a shift in their careers?

Surprising as it may sound, even in the West, most people are not prepared for drastic changes a job loss can bring. Individuals invariably fall into the “not me” comfort-zone, and go about their lives by trying to bury their heads in the sand. Every time there is news of layoffs, downsizing or cutbacks, they hope and pray that the climate of economic uncertainty will pass them over. They probably shouldn’t be passively waiting for the cloud of uncertainty to lift. People join organisations with the hope that they can work and grow with the firm. Most employees make plans with respect to careers and other aspects of their lives based on the jobs and place of work. A job or career is a big factor in planning for other aspects of one’s life. However, as a career starts resembling a series of gigs, one needs to shift one’s focus and plan accordingly.

Professionals probably need to start looking at their careers like a series of gigs. This is almost like the way actors or writers look at their careers. For example, an actress who is a “superstar” today may be relegated to a secondary status right after her big hit when the next new face emerges from the shadows. She may even lose out completely when the new crop of talent comes around. Do actors wait for the next generation of talent to overtake them? No, a shrewd actor will work hard on creating a niche—a dance sequence or something else that will remain evergreen and sell! Similarly, programmers and IT professionals need to carve out a niche in their areas of expertise. One way to do this would be to acquire certifications and/or by gaining experience in emerging areas. Professionals need to be prepared for the turbulent times ahead and distance themselves from their peers in any way that they can.

This strategy is no guarantee against layoffs but can help one land on one’s feet if an inadvertent layoff does happen. Professionals also need to start commanding higher premiums for their skills and save for lean times. The key is to de-link one’s personal ambitions from that of organisations while working diligently in the current job. By this I do not suggest that professionals detach themselves from the happenings in the organisation where they spend a good part of their working days. What I mean to imply is that individuals need to think of their careers as independent gigs, different from the goals of organisations.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say, “if only Andersen’s bright young professionals had the foresight to de-link themselves from the fortunes of their company”... a lesson for other professionals like you and me.




About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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