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After April 2000

In the second half of the 1990s, especially, the goal of making money, lots and lots of money, eclipsed other choices for many Americans, most of them in their 20s and 30s. Many people made career decisions on the basis of the possibility of acquiring big money. Affluent youth in the nation's best universities disdained the professions and consulting to join Wall Street or they made it to Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley. For the first time in the history of the world, America produced a large class of affluent people.

But that changed: April 2000 marked the start of a bear market, the end of the IPO market, and the beginning of the dot-com decline. Some dot-comers, especially those in their early 20s, became angry, confused, and bitter. For the first time in their lives, their ebullient optimism gave way to fear. While the specific fear is not having a job, the underlying anxiety is, "What's going on? I'm supposed to be a millionaire by now! Am I too late? Is it over?"

The Web was viewed as a major technological breakthrough for delivering information and products, for communicating, and for selling. With a technology that new, no one knew either the limitations or the possibilities, so many business models were tried. People were placing huge bets on best guesses. As the guesses were rewarded with fortunes, even vast sums of red ink were interpreted as assets. Many organizations were created just to be flipped so the early insiders could take the money and run. The Web was an inconceivable, glorious money machine, until investors started asking for profits, of which there were very few. The NASDAQ stock market, which specializes in technology companies, lost half of its value in six months. After April, caution began to replace euphoria.

The possibility of proving to themselves that they, too, had the right stuff and could end up with lots of money attracted people who were not intrinsically confident and optimistic. The opportunity to perceive yourself as a Ferrari rather than a Ford, and the availability of transformational amounts of money, made for a lot of bad fit.

It is a bad fit between an employee and an organization when people join borderless companies because the psychological and financial payoffs are immensely seductive, but, at heart, they're Fords. Fords aren't confident enough to deal with the chaotic and extremely demanding 24/7 conditions that are normal in a borderless organization, especially a start-up.

Will a less ebullient economy change the financial expectations and goals of people who chose to join borderless start-ups? Pragmatically, that depends partially 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. Even after April 2000, many knowledge workers in their 20s and just out of school continued to have the highest expectations, reflecting the fact that all they've really known is a heady economy and a soaring market. In a survey done in February 2001, college students remained incredibly optimistic.2 They expected 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, "While it is true that it takes time to succeed, I think that 2 to 5 years should be enough."

With little or no prior work or recession experience, most in this group are likely to become disenchanted with the dream of glamour and quick riches if the great times don't return. Their lack of experience with the normal cycles of the economy is likely to lead most of them to exaggerate the short-term negatives and ignore the long-term positives. These young people haven't had 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 a risky ride to possible riches.

The real Ferraris 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 layoffs of the 1980s and early 1990s. Confident, they may leave the battle-scarred turf of dot-coms 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.

Good fit, which is at the heart of employee satisfaction and organizational success, requires that people and organizations really know what they're like and what they want to become at a level of honesty that may require considerable courage. Eaton Corporation, a pillar of Cleveland's economy for more than a century, had to look squarely at its traditional product line and its century-old culture, and decide what to keep and what to jettison in the new borderless conditions. Looking in the mirror unflinchingly may be hard to do if your present qualities and characteristics are not those that are now most useful and in vogue. But honesty is the only way to get a best fit.

  • --Organizations must select people whose core needs or highest priorities can be met.

  • --Organizations must select people whose attitudes and behaviors are compatible with those of the present or future organization.

  • ----Organizations must select people whose expectations can be met.

  • ----In turn, individuals have to know what most matters to them at this time, and the conditions in which they're most likely to flourish.

Realistically, the best fit will keep evolving as people's needs and priorities reflect what's happening in the economy as well as their personal development. Best fit is a moving target in a dynamic economy.

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