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The Alliance: The Must-Read Book of the Summer That Could Change the Way We Work

07/09/2014 09:25 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2014

Summertime-reading recommendations are usually about escapism -- mysteries, thrillers, melodramas, romances -- meant to stand in for vacations from our everyday lives. And there is no shortage of this kind of list. But I'd like to add a different sort of book to your summer-reading queue. While it's not escapism, it is about a departure from our everyday work lives. I'm talking about The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, which just came out today. Hoffman is the founder of LinkedIn and a partner at Greylock and has made early-stage investments in companies like Facebook, Flickr, Zynga and Last.fm. Casnocha, in addition to being an entrepreneur himself, was once Hoffman's chief of staff at LinkedIn and his co-author of the bestselling The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. Yeh is a VP at Pbworks, co-founder of Wasabi Ventures and a longtime blogger. In other words, the authors have a lot of entrepreneurial street cred.

The Alliance shows how the workplace has changed in recent decades, and how these changes have broken down the trust in the relationship between employers and employees, to everyone's detriment. And then it shows a way forward so that all benefit.

Essentially, the authors write, we've gone from a model predicated on stable, longtime (if not lifetime) employment to one of constant flux and change. "The world changed, both philosophically and technologically," they write. "The rise of shareholder capitalism led companies and managers to focus on hitting short-term financial targets to boost stock prices."

As a result, the employer-employee relationship has become legalistic and transactional, characterized by mutual distrust and "based on a dishonest conversation." Employers still talk about the value of talent retention and use the language of "family" and "team," but when short-term and quarterly expectations aren't met, employees suddenly find themselves without a family, cut from the team. Since employees know this, they're -- not unreasonably -- always looking for a better gig and not fully committing to what they're doing now. "No one wants to risk being jilted," the authors write, "so no one invests in the long-term relationship."

When no one wants to make that investment, it's bad for everybody, including companies. And this isn't good for anyone:

A business without loyalty is a business without long-term thinking. A business without long-term thinking is a business that's unable to invest in the future. And a business that isn't investing in tomorrow's opportunities and technologies -- well, that's a company already in the process of dying.

Since we can't go back to the old model of lifetime service at a company, what do we do? "We can build a new type of loyalty," they write, "that both recognizes economic realities and allows companies and employees to commit to each other."

They call this new model "the alliance," which they describe as "a new employment framework that facilitates mutual trust, mutual investment, and mutual benefit." In this new model, employers say to their employees, "Help make our company more valuable, and we'll make you more valuable." And employees respond by saying, "Help me grow and flourish, and I'll help the company grow and flourish."

But, as The Alliance points out, it's a model already flourishing in Silicon Valley -- though, as the authors note, press coverage of Silicon Valley tends to focus on the role of the star players and innovative technology and underplay companies' success at creating this kind of mutually beneficial relationship with their employees.

As the authors put it, The Alliance is not just an argument that we need a new way of doing business. It's a blueprint for how to actually do it. And here are the parts of the blueprint that particularly resonated with me.

The first is the concept of the "tour of duty." Just as soldiers serve set rotations, doing one specific task for an allotted amount of time and then moving on to something else, employees can benefit from moving through a series of different challenges while staying at the same company.

The authors give as an example the experience of David Hahn, who, in nine years at LinkedIn, went through four different tours of duty and wound up as VP of Product. Along the way, as a manager, he encouraged members of whichever team he happened to be leading to rotate through their own tours. "At LinkedIn, the philosophy is to let our brightest go after areas that interest them, especially in areas where they will be a bit in over their head at first," Hahn says in the book. "It's been a great strategy to keep our most talented folks motivated and learning as fast as possible."

At HuffPost we haven't been calling them "tours of duty" -- though we will now, now that I've read The Alliance -- but in fact, we have many examples of editors and other employees who have been through multiple tours of duty in the company during our nine years of life. For example, there's Whitney Snyder, who started as my research assistant, went on to launch our sports vertical, then became Front Page Editor and is now Executive News Editor. Or Jimmy Soni, who started as my chief of staff, then became Managing Editor and is now off to India to launch HuffPost India. Or Nico Pitney, who was Politics Editor, then National Editor, then D.C. Bureau Chief, then Managing Editor before taking a year off to travel around the world (does this count as a tour duty, or is it purely a tour of pleasure?) and returning as Head of Product.

The tour-of-duty framework helps companies keep their best talent because it helps the employees build their personal brand. Yes, "personal brand" can be an overused term, but acknowledging that employees have an idea of their personal brand is an important sign of this new relationship of mutual trust.

And it's also a great way of articulating and enhancing a way of operating that almost all startups share: the fact that, especially at the beginning, everybody does everything. That can be chaotic sometimes, but, if you channel it, it can also give a company a huge edge.

The authors identify three different kinds of tours of duty. Most common at the entry level is the rotational tour. The transformational tour is more intense and more personalized and is based on the idea that the employee will "have the opportunity to transform both his career and the company." And then there's the foundational tour, which is based on "exceptional alignment of employer and employee" and is the tour that CEOs and most senior managers are on.

There are many companies that use the tour system informally, but also some that have institutionalized it. The authors note that at Cisco, where a Talent Connection program helps staffers find new challenges inside the company, career-development satisfaction is up by nearly 20 percent.

But it's important, as the authors note, to stop expecting that the company's sense of purpose and the employee's sense of purpose will be one and the same thing. People have passions and find meaning outside work (which, I would argue, is a very good thing). Alignment means that companies should find where their sense of purpose and meaning overlaps with that of their employees and nurture that commonality. And, as a sign of respect and trust, they should also help their employees fulfill their sense of purpose even where it doesn't overlap with that of the company.

Corporate giving and volunteering programs can help give employees a sense of well-being and satisfaction, which makes them better employees even when that well-being comes from activities that have nothing to do with their jobs.

Another concept in the book that rang especially true to me was about the importance of establishing alumni networks. "Lifetime employment might be over," the authors write, "but a lifetime relationship remains the ideal." And creating alumni networks is great for both employers and employees. The authors note that LinkedIn, Tesla, YouTube, Yelp and SpaceX were all created by alumni of PayPal. That's an alumni network that's also an awfully valuable resource.

In addition to serving as sources of ongoing "network intelligence" and expertise, alumni networks facilitate bringing back "boomerang" employees (those who leave for a while and then come back). Just off the top of my head, I can think of 10 boomerangers who left HuffPost to go to Forbes, the Financial Times and Marie Claire, among other places, before coming back. They are, as the authors write, a unique resource, because they already know the culture and values of the place and acquire new skills in their intervening tours of duty.

Reading this part of the book, I realized how much HuffPost has made use of its alumni network without yet formalizing it. My co-founder Kenny Lerer and our former CEO Eric Hippeau now run Lerer Hippeau Ventures and have helped grow the New York startup ecosystem by investing in companies as varied as Betaworks (whose bitly link shortener we use on HuffPost) and Warby Parker (where I get my glasses). On my book tour for Thrive, I had a great time being interviewed on YouTube Nation by HuffPost Live alum Jacob Soboroff, while Alicia Menendez, who now has her own show on Fusion, joined our Thrive conference and moderated a panel with me on millennial stress at Northwestern University. And Mike Hogan, our former Executive Culture Editor, is now running digital at Vanity Fair and helped get one of our editors into the Vanity Fair afterparty after the White House Correspondents' Dinner (so there are not just substantive advantages but fun perks to alum networks!).

A study discussed in the book found that only 15 percent of businesses surveyed had created official alumni networks, but 67 percent had employees who had created unofficial networks -- a sign of how useful they are.

What's also great about The Alliance is how it gives concrete ways to implement these ideas. For example, the authors provide templates for creating a statement of alliance between employers and employees, and specific steps and language for creating different kinds of tours of duty. Of course, every company is different, but the challenges that have changed -- and, in many cases, severely damaged -- the relationship between employer and employee are fairly universal. And the authors' solutions to not only weather these challenges but take advantage of them are just as universal. As Hoffman, Casnocha and Yeh put it, "Today, entrepreneurial thinking and doing are the most important capabilities companies need from their employees. As the competitive pace increases, it becomes more and more critical."

Even if Washington weren't so hopelessly polarized and gridlocked, many of the problems that have been created by technology and the pace of change would be beyond policy: our own pace of life, the inability to resist technology's siren call to be wired and "on" all the time, entire industries being "disrupted" (another overused term, the downside of which is often given attention). That's why, as The Alliance makes clear, it's so important to redefine our relationship to work:

Improving the microcosm of workplace relationships can have a major impact on society -- job by job, team by team, company by company. The alliance may seem like a small thing next to macroeconomic proposals like overhauling the education system or reforming our regulatory regime, but it's a small thing we can all adopt today that will generate big cumulative returns in the years to come.

It's not a murder mystery or a thriller, but The Alliance (which does sound like a thriller), by showing us the way out of a model that's no longer working, is the form of escapism we desperately need.