A Lifelong Employment at One Company—Can Teach Us in The Great Resignation

How did a kid from a working class background rise through the ranks of corporate America to become the CEO of a top Fortune 500 company? Surprising as it might sound, that’s exactly what I did. With no MBA or even a masters degree, I ultimately held not one but two CEO positions: first at Hughes Electronics, then at AT&T and Comcast.

Sure, it took hard work, grit and determination. Lots of it. And it took some luck. But back in the 1960s when I was starting my career, there was something else that has all but disappeared in our evolving world and business environment: the opportunities presented by the tradition of lifelong employment at a single company.

Some people today might not even remember the days of lifelong employment. They might not know what it was, how it worked, or that it existed at all. The idea was simple: once you were in a company, you were in for life. Your employer took care of you from the time you started work there until the time you retired—and often, beyond.

This approach was good for companies, since it helped ensure that their employees were fully committed. And it was great for employees, providing security, community and peace of mind.
Combined with ongoing training and education, it also allowed employees to develop and grow into new positions within their organization over time.

When I graduated from college in 1961 with a bachelors in business administration, I took an entry level job selling and installing data-processing equipment for the IBM Data Processing Division in Indianapolis. Thanks to the robust training programs that were central to IBM’s culture, I built new skills both on the technical side and in management. For three decades I rose through the ranks, becoming the head of operations in Europe, Africa, and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and ultimately, one of IBM's top executives.

With those decades of rigorous experience under my belt, I was offered the position of CEO at Hughes Electronics in 1992. I describe this transition in my book Cancer With Hope: Facing Illness, Embracing Life, and Finding Purpose, for it coincided with my first cancer diagnosis. In 1997 I took a new job, as Chairman and CEO of AT&T and Comcast. None of this would have been possible without IBM’s culture of lifelong employment.

In today’s fast-paced, high-turnover environment where moving up often requires moving on to another organization, the notion of lifelong employment might seem absurd. While it can have its drawbacks, in its heyday there’s one thing it really got right:

In many ways, it helped level the playing field so that workers had a chance to climb the corporate ladder if they wished--regardless of their resumes.
I know we can’t turn back the clocks and recreate an environment where the lifelong employment model fits most U.S. companies’ and workers’ objectives. But there are a few things I believe we can take away from it and apply to the future.

First, companies can recruit, train and support workers as if they were planning to employ them for life. Providing everyone with optimal benefits, training and treatment will go a long way to strengthening teams and their performance.

Second, workers can commit themselves to their jobs with a long-term mindset even if they don’t quite know what the future holds. This means prioritizing loyalty, dedication and a willingness to address tricky issues that might arise rather than keeping one foot in the door from the start as people nowadays often do.

Especially in this age of the Great Resignation, these steps could go a long way toward increasing job satisfaction, productivity and retention—as well as creating better opportunities for all.


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