The rise of the corporate nomad will be inexorable in the wake of the pandemic. These are individuals who, while maintaining a full-time employment relationship with their organizations, will increasingly participate part-time in geographically dispersed initiatives and projects within their employer’s global network. The benefits are many. It gives individuals a sense of financial stability while also allowing them be exposed to new people, new geographies, new cultures, new values, and new work projects without having to leave their current organization. Fostering this type of global exposure and contribution will also become an increasingly important and effective way for organizations to retain and develop top talent. It can provide individuals and corporations alike with an extraordinary chance to reap the benefits of job enrichment and change, without requiring individuals to jump into the wrong place with the wrong fit, and without creating a situation where organizations must replace great employees who should never have been lost in the first place.
Today, I am fundamentally a freelance worker, although with a part-time-yet-major commitment to a great institution. I am enjoying life enormously at this stage of my career. However, what got me here were three fascinating decades neither in a traditional corporate career nor as a freelancer, but rather as what I label a corporate nomad. It’s a career option that I expect to become increasingly popular — and attractive — in the years to come.
Corporate nomads are individuals who, while maintaining a full-time employment relationship with their organizations, will increasingly participate part-time in geographically dispersed initiatives and projects within their employer’s global network.
The Appeal of Being a Corporate Nomad
While the corporate nomad alternative will still be a small segment of the workforce, I see it growing quickly in the coming years, particularly for individuals in their early 30s to 50s, for several reasons:
- While freelance relationships will likely continue to be an attractive option at the beginning and toward the end of our professional lives, stable employment relationships have important financial benefits from our early 30s to 50s, when we are struggling to pay our mortgages, the family’s education, and save for retirement or future financial independence.
- In addition to financial stability, emotional and social stability are extremely important assets for our well-being. Over the past two decades, a growing body of research has focused on the importance of positive psychological capital (PsyCap). This combination of self-efficacy, optimism, hope, and resilience is easier to develop when we are not alone. A rich network of colleagues, a professional home and family, and a culture where we fit and belong become ever-more valuable assets in an increasingly challenging world.
- For those raising families in their 30s to 50s, giving their children a stable environment without frequent relocations will strongly contribute to their emotional and social health and development. As Goethe put it, “There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings.” A stable community and network of local friends and relationships can help kids develop strong roots. In turn, your global perspective as a corporate nomad can help you expand your children’s vision, while your growing international network of virtual friends and relationships will help them open their wings for sporadic travels, exchanges, international friendship, and studying abroad.
- As we navigate the waves of the Great Resignation, switching jobs has become increasingly risky. According to a recent survey of more than 2,500 respondents by The Muse, 72% of those who recently switched jobs have been frustrated, and almost half of these would consider trying to get their old jobs back. Virtual interviews can limit our ability to get a good sense of a new job environment, while the Great Resignation is increasing employers’ pressure to paint unrealistically rosy pictures. Corporate nomads can find exciting part-time challenges within their current organizations — lowering the risk of making a company move they may regret. The grass at your current place of employment may indeed be the greenest!
- Being a corporate nomad allows you to be exposed to new people, new geographies, new cultures, new values, and new work projects that will foster your development through stretch assignments.
- Finally, a rich stint as a corporate nomad can be an extraordinary training ground and networking platform if in the future you decide to embark on a new free agent stage. Decades of being a corporate nomad helped me develop for my current freelance stage, not only by building an invaluable global network but, fundamentally, by giving me the hunger to keep on learning and contributing globally. It also helped me build the skills to sense opportunities and partner with a fascinating, diverse, and constantly dynamic universe touching all continents.
My own corporate nomad adventures started with leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder more than 30 years ago. I was living in Buenos Aires for family reasons, but — while spending most of my time doing local client work — I started actively participating on several global initiatives all over the world. These became a long succession of fascinating projects, that included participating on global teams for training events, reengineering the firm’s executive search process, founding its assessment and development practice, and much more. Since I was living in Argentina and working with a firm that had a network of 67 offices in 42 countries, this demanded significant travel in those days. But I always felt that the effort was negligible compared with the unique prospect of getting to better know and work with fascinating colleagues from all sorts of nationalities, cultures, religions, values, styles, knowledge, and experiences. It was an ongoing journey of excitement and learning, as much as it was a larger opportunity to contribute globally, not just given the constraints of my far away and modest location in Argentina, but even compared to the local contribution I could have made had I accepted an opportunity to relocate anywhere else in the world.
In addition to the personal benefits, fostering this type of global exposure and contribution will also become an increasingly important and effective way for organizations to retain and develop top talent:
- More than 100 CEOs from around the world recently met at Harvard Business School and shared the things that keep them awake at night: 33% said recruitment and retention of talent was by far their biggest challenge. (For context, the next most-cited challenges, which included uncertainty and instability, and inflation/stagflation were only mentioned by 10% of the CEOs). Given the high cost and increased difficulty of hiring, organizations will need to increase their focus on the best way to retain talent. The key for retaining and motivating knowledge workers is to give them higher autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and corporations will boost all three by offering corporate nomads a much richer menu of part-time elective experiences and contributions — geographically, situationally, and functionally.
- Furthermore, organizations that encourage the rise of the corporate nomad will soon discover the extraordinary impact this practice will have on the development of their internal talent. Adults develop mostly on the job and through stretch assignments; opening the global development dimension (without the need for physical relocation) will dramatically expand people’s competence.
How to Become a Corporate Nomad
The rise of the corporate nomad will be inexorable, given the strong and growing benefits for individuals and organizations alike. However, to successfully become a corporate nomad (mostly virtually these days), employees will need to master four key disciplines:
1. Clarify your purpose.
In the wake of the pandemic, and even more so in today’s delicate global geopolitical scenario, we increasingly crave meaning. Before even thinking about what new internal contributions and experiences you might want to apply for, get clear on your purpose. This Six C’s model can help you think through what you’re looking for, including what to look for in a new job if your corporate nomad visa is denied by your organization.
2. Systematically search for potential project partners.
Once you have clarified your purpose and come up with a series of attractive generic options (in terms of experience, learning, and contribution), you should systematically source for organizational units, functions, and geographies that could benefit from your potential contribution. Equally important, you should search for (and check references on) specific individuals you may want to partner with in your nomadic experience. You should take this as seriously as an actual job search, for which this article and its downloadable decision support tool may be of help.
3. Pitch the idea to your boss.
Once you have spotted an attractive opportunity with a significant chance for success, you should candidly and enthusiastically speak with your boss about the reasons why you would like to focus some of your time on your proposed initiative. In my experience, assuming your choice is a sensible one, most people will interpret your initiative as a very positive sign and strongly support it.
4. Proactively manage your life.
According to GALLUP’s last 2021 State of the Global Workplace Report, workers’ daily stress levels have reached historic highs. However, the report also shows that a record number of workers have also been thriving. What is their secret? They are proactive in their work choices and masters at managing their lives. The trick is not to add, but to completely improve the mix of projects and tasks on your plate. Productivity in knowledge workers has a dramatic spread, as does happiness, and those at the top of both curves are masters at resisting technological invasion: They always plan their week ahead while blocking out time for important tasks; they avoid digital distractions and invasion; and they feel fully comfortable saying no when they have an alternative burning yes. I have consistently found that I am at my highest level of productivity when I work on highly challenging, self-initiated, deadline-driven projects. I feel in flow while at them, and as a result I remain full of energy to accomplish “all of the rest.” Without those projects, though, I tend to procrastinate on everything, falling behind even in my most essential ordinary tasks.
What Organizations Need to Do
In turn, to fully capture the corporate nomad advantage, organizations will need to successfully implement three key disciplines:
1. Change the way they look at talent, shifting from a fixed to a growth mindset.
It won’t be enough to successfully implement high-potential programs (already a major challenge). Organizations will need to avoid the trap of rigidly segmenting people into high and low potentials, and instead look deeper for each person’s unique potential profile, including their very personal combination of curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. A look beyond someone’s experience, knowledge, and even current competence will allow leaders to imagine a wide range of opportunities for personal development and corporate contribution.
2. Reconsider how they develop their talent.
I am currently advising a leading global cybersecurity firm whose sector is experiencing explosive growth, with February job postings up 31% from December, implying a 400% yearly growth rate in the sector even before the war started in Ukraine. What’s more, there’s a global talent scarcity of millions of cybersecurity workers. Since the organization is as committed to capturing the growth opportunity as they are to fostering genuine inclusion, they’re redrafting their 360-degree review processes in a way that will help everyone become more aware of their true individual potential profile, while helping them look for ways to unlock that potential. In our HBR article ”Turning Potential into Success,” we explain how organizations can forecast how far someone can develop along key leadership competencies, so as to effectively provide people with the right opportunities.
3. Review their incentives systems, placing higher emphasis on developing global talent.
The best management consulting firms have always excelled at developing global talent. Consider Hindustan Unilever, which became an extraordinary factory of top global leaders by basing up to half of their senior executives’ bonuses on the number and quality of leaders they helped develop for themselves and others. As a result, they have produced more than 400 CEOs for other companies, on top of many senior leaders for the Unilever global network.
The rise of the corporate nomad could provide individuals and corporations alike with an extraordinary chance to reap the benefits of job enrichment and change, without requiring individuals to jump into the wrong place with the wrong fit, and without creating a situation where organizations must replace great employees who should never have been lost in the first place.
As Felix Marquardt puts it in his recent book The New Nomads: How the Migration Revolution is Making the World a Better Place, the root of the ancient philosophy of nomadism is not migration specifically, but rather the frame of mind required — an openness, curiosity, humility, and willingness to embrace and explore new people, places and concepts, all of which are extraordinary sources of corporate innovation and performance. This frame of mind is also the source of personal development and can lead to the sense of profound purpose we crave in these uncertain days. As Marquardt puts it: “When we move, we don’t just learn about the place where we go. We also discover who we are and where we come from.”
The rise of the corporate nomad should not only make us more successful and happier. It should fundamentally make us better human beings, genuinely and proactively embracing inclusion at a global scale… one nomadic project at a time.