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Do You Have the Fire in Your Belly?

The expression, “work hard, get ahead”, is usually attributed to the English novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley and has been oft quoted by many others…even today.


In his 2013 inauguration speech, President Obama said “If you work hard and meet your responsibilities; you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love. “


The American Dream is rooted in this simple notion…that anyone can make it in America with hard work, determination, a bit of ingenuity, and perhaps a measure of self-made good luck.  But as we compare and contrast the work styles and work ethic of young companies in the tech world with those in more mature companies and industries, we see a growing chasm between those who “work hard, get ahead” and those who “get in, get out, and try to have a life”.


In the tech world, young entrepreneurs worked 80-90 hour weeks to develop disruptive ideas that could change the status quo, and in special cases, change the world.  These late Baby Boomer/Gen X entrepreneurs lived on Jolt cola, pizza, marathon coding sessions, and lots of collaboration and camaraderie…serving an idea, building a viable company, and deriving satisfaction from fulfilling their ambitions.  The money came later.  That spirit carries on today in younger companies like Google, Facebook, and the countless start-ups toiling away today.  Here, a new generation of Gen Y and Millenials continue to live by the “work hard, get ahead” culture and standards set by their leaders.   The parking lots remain full at 7 or 8pm, and the office lights twinkle often late into the night.  They have “skin in the game”.


Contrast this with more mature companies both in and out of the tech sphere.  More often that not, mature companies are losing that “fire in the belly” as a new generation of junior and middle Gen Y managers take a very different approach to work.  Here we see people who are often lower on initiative, disinclined to take risks, and feel no qualms around checking in at 930am and leaving promptly at 5.  Is it any wonder that those young companies are displacing their better-resourced counterparts in both growth and innovation? 


I read an excellent, if daring, blog written by Bruce Cleveland titled “Public Sector v Private Sector; will (can) the private sector carry the load?”

Bruce alludes to a growing sense of entitlement amongst public employees who work in anonymity within large bureaucratic structures….a parallel that is what I see with the Gen Y crowd working in larger, more mature companies.


There is a solution for those mature companies with Baby Boomer/Gen X leadership who may be frustrated by the gap between their leadership team and their troops.  As a consultant, I have worked with such leadership, admiring their hard work and dedication into the wee hours while their junior and middle level staff checked in at 930am and left before sundown.  It starts with re-igniting the passion, setting a powerful and compelling vision underscored by a reason for being.  It continues with a collaborative culture that embraces great ideas from everywhere, and gives employees a sense of ownership and an ability to influence the future course. 


Where Lou Gerstner once said that “the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision”, I would argue that the Gen Y and Millenial generation needs that vision…that purpose…that inspiring strategy…that understanding that they matter…and a verifiable sense that they and their teams can make a difference.


The fire in the belly still lies in us all.  If business as usual means complacency, it’s time to rediscover that “work hard, get head” entrepreneurial spirit.

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Andrew Salzman

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Photo credit demotivation.us


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