Posted by: Joseph S. Lima | September 28, 2009

What do you do?

How often do you hear this question?  I hear it quite often usually after I have introduced myself to someone new.  Inevitably the questioner wants to know what I do for work, my profession, my place in the world.  I think it is interesting that we as individuals are quickly categorized by what we do for work rather than by our hobbies, personal interests, family, etc.   I know that the validity of the previous statement will vary by region, culture, age and generation.   This post will look at how how we answer the question “what do you do?” and how we may answer it differently in the future.

So how do you respond to this question?  Do you say “I work for Company ABC” or do you say “I am a ____ professional”?  The answer provides a wealth of insight into who you are and how you view work.  Let me share two different perspectives.

The first company I worked for designs, manufactures and supports aerospace components worldwide and has been in business since 1919 or so.  The average employment time with the company was around 18 years.  I went to numerous retirement parties for engineers who had between 35 and 45 years with the company.   Even met an aircraft mechanic who has been with United Airlines for over 50 years.   The company defined them, their place and status.   For numerous reasons people did not leave no matter if they were unhappy with the work, the hours, the money, the lack of progress. There was certainty so they stayed.   I am sure the average employment term has dropped but I am also certain I could find people with 25 plus years.

I recently worked at a software company, one that has been in business for 20 years.  Here too you can find people who have been with the company since the beginning.  What was more common was to find people who had been with the company for a year or two.  If you asked them what they did for work, their response would be “marketing”, “sales”, or “programmer”.  The type of work rather than their employer defines them.  Further, depending on your age, your definition of what you do will be a combination of work and non-work interests and activities.

Everything so far is fairly obvious especially if live and work in the United States.  However, I believe there is a disconnect between the current mindset of workers and the organizations that employ them.  As people progress through their careers they are apt to switch places of employment quite frequently whether by their choice or that of their employer.  Through many recent conversations and workshops, I have observed that a small but growing set of people are adopting a free agent mindset to work.   They are defining their skills, the problems they can solve, quantifying their relevant experience, finding a project and moving on once it is finished. Companies are spending a lot of time and money to hire people who may leave as soon as they feel their work is completed. Then the company has to start the process all over again.

So how are people developing this new mindset?  Perhaps they have read Free Agent Nation by Daniel Pink (Fast Company article or subsequent book) or Career Renegade by Jonathan Fields.  Maybe they are a fan of Workshifting, a blog that covers the dispersed nature of work. Regardless, the employee/employer relationship is evolving and everyone has to prepare for the future.

For Individuals

We need to take the time to plan our careers even if it is on a rolling 3 – 5 year time frame.  The plan will evolve in time as life occurs but we need to review the career plan twice a year.  Along with a career plan have a financial plan since you will not be able to count on a 401k down the road.  I also recommend having a list of 20 or 30 companies or organizations that you know have the problems or challenges you can solve.  Use the tools at your disposal to network and prepare for your next assignment.

For Organizations

There are a lot of issues to consider if employees have a free agent mentality.  Organizational structure, knowledge retention, compensation and so on.   Much like the recommendation I gave for individuals, organizations at all levels should be looking at their internal bench and pool of external prospects.  Social networks have reduced the friction of finding and networking with potential employees but it does take time and effort to make those contacts.  The effort will pay off if you have to quickly back fill an open position or need someone to take the organization to the next level.

Do you have a free agent mindset?


  1. There once was a time where folks only worked for 1 company, this could have been because that was the company closest to where they lived. They lived, ate, and breathed that company. As folks began to move away from their jobs, a 30 minute commute in one direction was equal to a 30 minute commute in another direction. Our Grandparent’s, and some of our Parent’s generation may have continued to work for the same company due to the stability of the company, the fact there was a feeling that the company also was looking after their best interests. But as the Auto brought more flexibility the flexibility increased in both directions. Our Parent’s generation moved jobs more than their Parent’s generation, they may have moved more homes and the like. As that was happening companies began to feel there was less loyalties of the employees and at the same time (chicken and the egg here) employees felt less loyalty from the company. Thus folks began to move more and more, began to be free agents.
    If some one asks “what do I do?” I say I brew, not I am a brewer for XXX, though in a few months I will likely say that .
    I am trying to think of what I am saying, but the free agent mindset is also of a certain subset of folks. Many people today are not free agents, maybe they have jobs that they just get by at, or maybe they choose not to be free agents.

    As for the Free Agent Mindset… everyone needs that now days that the loyalties have shifted, companies are no longer loyal to the employees, whether it is because they are too big, or employees are just numbers. And Employees are no longer loyal to the company, there is always bigger checks, and better benefits out there.

    I have no clue where I am going with any of this. But it was a fun mind dump.


  2. I appreciate the mind dump! I think the employee-employer relationship has changed over time. Employees are encouraged to take charge of their own careers by their employers, which some do and some don’t. Upon further reflection I bet employers are not surprised that there is a lot of staff turnover.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: