'Alliance' dissects changing relationship between workers and managers

 'Alliance' dissects changing relationship between workers and managers
Although the authors acknowledge that not all industries are evolving as fast as the tech sector, they believe many are having to cope with rapid change. Above, Zynga employees in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

If the hype is to be believed, you can see the future in Silicon Valley.

In that part of California, youthful geniuses start companies that change everything about how we live and do business. And, if authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh are to be believed in their new book, those companies also reveal how the relationship between employees and employers is changing.


Hoffman ought to know. As co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn, the networking site, he has been at the leading edge of changes in work for the professional class. The company's logo is on the front cover of the book, "The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age." It was published by Harvard Business Review Press.

We have moved from an "era of lifetime employment," the authors say, to a "free-agency-style" period. They remind us that we can no longer expect to join a company and be set up with a career for life, working for the same organization from school until we retire.

From their perch in Silicon Valley, where competition for the brightest and best employees often seems like a blood sport, this view is a reality.

Engineers are so highly prized that not only are youthful developers able to command salaries that few entry-level employees can muster in other industries, but chief executives go to extraordinary lengths to hire them.

One founder of a well-known start-up told me he spent four months wooing just one employee. Beyond the salary and equity being offered, he spent time with the potential recruit and his family, going so far as to drive his wife and children to football practice, all in the hope of convincing the engineer to join his start-up. (He did.)

Although the authors acknowledge that not all industries are evolving as fast as the tech sector, they believe many are having to cope with rapid change.

In their 2012 book, "The Start-Up of You," Hoffman and Casnocha laid out how this affected the individual employee.

Here, they and Yeh focus on how managers should respond. The clue is in the title: "The Alliance" argues for a new relationship that is not based solely on "a legal and binding contract" between company and worker but more on a "relational approach. Think of employment as an alliance: a mutually beneficial deal, with explicit terms, between independent players."

What does this mean in practice? For a start, modern employment is defined by "tours of duty," an idea they discussed in a 2013 article for Harvard Business Review. Careers are increasingly a series of short, often project-based assignments.

There are three types of tour: Rotational, aimed at entry-level employees, structured and of "finite duration"; Transformational, focused on completing a specific task and personalized to an individual employee; and the rarer Foundational tour, which is when an employee and employer want a lifelong link. (Think of designer Jonathan Ive at Apple.)

Employees are as much in control of a relationship as employers, say the authors, and managers must embrace this fact.

The authors say this requires honest and continuing conversations between manager and managed to define the parameters of the relationship and ensure it evolves in a way both parties accept.

This can even include accepting that valued employees may choose to leave the company — but having an open conversation means a manager can get the most out of them before they quit. And employees who leave on good terms are more likely to bring business back to the company.

If you have read nothing about the changing nature of the workplace, this account may be of use. But for readers who expect to find lessons gleaned from the mountains of data generated by LinkedIn or a taste of some surprising new trends, this slim account will disappoint.


Hoffman and LinkedIn surely have a lot to say, so it is surprising that more insights do not come through in this book. Let's hope on the next tour of duty, he and his co-authors look a little deeper.

Mattu is an editor at the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.