Company Man Or Free Agent?

Weighing the satisfaction of being your own boss against the joy of working on a team

By Jack and Suzy Welch

I've worked for five years at a very successful company where many exciting challenges lie ahead. But I know that the independent contractors employed by my department earn a lot more than I do—in some cases, almost triple. So I find myself at a crossroads: Should I go out on my own as a "hired gun" or stick it out as a company man? — Anonymous, Dublin

You hail from one of the world's most robust economies, but your question is universalit's the "it" career question of our times, and not just for newly minted college grads or MBAs. Virtually all businesspeople with some form of marketable expertise have the opportunity to outsource themselves to the growing number of employers attracted by the flexibility of hiring people without "chains." As one such employer told us recently: "Independent contractors make my life so easy. I don't have to pay their benefits, write their appraisals, or manage their neuroses." Best of all, she added, "if things don't work out, I don't have to roll in the muck with HR or legal. I can just say: So long."

The deal can work nicely for independent contractors, too. They can maximize their earning power by working for several companies at once, working overtime, or working just as much as their needs require, and all while they enjoy being their own boss. Who needs snarky office politics, prescribed vacation time, and tedious annual 360-feedback evaluations when you can own your own life? What you lose in job security and insurance benefits you can make up in income and freedom.

BUT HOLD ON. Even in the brave new economy, there is still a case to be made for working at a company, and you allude to it in your question. It is the excitement of being part of something bigger than yourself and the thrill of building something—a product, a service, or a team. It is the fun of laughing, debating, sweating it out with fellow travelers—friends and allies in the never-ending competition for customers and profits. Say all you want about the joys of independence, but you can't claim that you and your BlackBerry on a plane can give you the same high as being in a room full of co-workers when word comes in that you've won a hard-fought contract. It just doesn't get any better.

If you're that kind of person.

And of course, that is what your crossroads decision comes down to: nothing more or less powerful than personal fit.

Some people are company people in their bones. They start joining sports teams and clubs as kids and seek experiences replete with camaraderie their whole lives. These types love the identity of belonging to an organization. The association makes them feel not overwhelmed or diminished, but fulfilled. Many people in this category are also energized by the prospect of leadership. They are the types of men and women who ask us, in countless e-mails and everywhere we travel: "How can I be the best manager in the world?" and "How do I get to be a CEO someday?"

There are also lots of people for whom being a manager or CEO has no appeal whatsoever, not to mention their lukewarm feelings about required organizational mush: strategic planning, budgeting, and the like. Years ago, one of us (Suzy) sat with a friend in a Sante Fe movie theater watching Working Girl. The moment an office scene appeared, the friend loudly announced: "Ugh—never!" eliciting a smattering of applause from others in the audience. Her business? Buying and selling jewelry from her basement. Her job description? Sole proprietor and entrepreneur.

Speaking of that, entrepreneurship is surely a third category to consider when you think about career fit. Entrepreneurs have characteristics of both independent contractor and company types. They want to build and belong—but to something of their own invention. This path, lucky for the economy, continues to attract some of the smartest, most passionate people in the world. In fact, during our recent speaking tour of 35 campuses, we'd estimate that 20% to 25% of the MBAs told us they wanted to start their own businesses.

From your question, that doesn't sound like your particular dream. Perhaps it has too much risk. Perhaps you don't have a big idea right now. And so, like many professionals today, you are left deciding between two very different career paths, both with virtues and drawbacks. Your decision isn't permanent, but it is huge and it will change your life. So imagine that life 5, 10, and 20 years out. What do you want to be?

The choice is all yours.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at For their podcast discussion of this column, go to

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