Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Are You Indispensible? Seth Godin's Linchpin

Read the reviews of this book earlier in the year when Seth Godin released 3,000+ copies to anyone who wanted to review it and it's one gigantic love-in. Not so much for me. This book makes me slightly angry. It's this bit, right at the start: "you have no right to that job or that career. After years of being taught that you have to be an average worker for an average organisation, that society would support you for sticking it out, you discover that the rules have changed. The only way to succeed is to be remarkable, to be talked about... The only way to get what you're worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labour, to be seen as indispensable and to produce interactions that organisations and people care deeply about."

Where oh where to begin? Nobody has a right to a career or a job - but that doesn't mean it's okay for the CEO to run the company into bankruptcy or outsource your job to Chittagong. Godin accepts the current view that the behaviour of corporations is like the weather: you can't control it, you can't predict it, it doesn't make sense and there's no point complaining. Except the last time I looked, corporations were run by people who made decisions: it isn't the weather that puts a Tesco outside your nice little town and closes the high street in eighteen months flat, it's some guys in Tesco's operations planning department who know exactly how hard the store will hit the local traders. Godin never even nods at the possibility of a political solution to endemic job insecurity and declining real wages. He only needed to say, as Robert Townsend surely would have, "until the politicians do something to stop corporations behaving like juvenile delinquents fouling the neighbourhood, it's going to be every man and woman for themselves" and perhaps he feels that's what he has said.

Trouble is, the advice doesn't scale. We can't all be remarkable - because then remarkable would be the new average. If everybody's somebody then nobody's anybody - as Groucho Marx said. You can't work Godin's programme if your boss is a bully; if you and your work are recorded, monitored or targeted; or if you have low self-esteem or no confidence. You'll need to move bosses, companies or jobs first. To work his program you need a certain amount of organisational ambiguity around you, or at least a boss who isn't insecure, vindictive or a control-freak. Also you need to be the kind of person who is comfortable taking advantage of the ambiguity, lack of direction, clueless managers and empty policies that characterise the corporate world today. Put those two requirements together and it's not many people.

Neither will being "indispensable" - a "linchpin" -  alter your chances of being laid off one jot. No-one is safe when HR put the names into the hat. Managers use re-organisations to settle scores and get rid of people who don't fit in first, and then think about the job. Many re-organisations are done for the express purpose of removing skilled, experienced (and therefore more expensive) people from the workforce, so that the company can provide its no-quality, price-driven products more cheaply.

I don't like the insinuation that if your life sucks and you're just a decent ordinary guy or gal, well, then it's your fault. It feels like blaming the victim. That stuff about reaching out and trusting the Universe, following our bliss, giving gifts so that we receive a hundred-fold and all that is... tosh. It's a very useful line of argument for the guy who just closed the office in Lower Cokeatington, putting a hundred people out of work: "best thing that will ever happen to you, work out what you want, go after your dream, take responsibility for your life instead of letting someone else run it". Anything the Bad Guys can turn to their use that easily has to be flawed.

I hope one day Seth Godin realises that self-help books aren't enough and only a political movement will do. He would be a superb spokesman and he's nearly there: you can hear the disgust for modern corporations in his writing. It's a disgust felt by most grown-ups who have been through the redundancy / re-organisation mill at least once. Until then, it's every man and woman for themselves, and in that sad world, a lot of what he says - suitably sobered up and de-hyped - is pretty good.

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