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Lasting Loyalty: What Companies Can Learn from Colleges

We proudly don our college sweatshirt, even though the school colours clash with our wardrobe. Our parents still display our school’s bumper sticker on their rear windshield. And when the school magazine arrives in the mail, we flip through it with a pang of nostalgia.

Our alma mater is a big part of our identity. At least, it’s supposed to be. From the day we set foot on campus, we are told that this is a lifelong relationship and commitment. But what happens when the decision we made at 18 no longer reflects who we are today? What if it’s the choices we made after college that really define us? 

My college decision was made by the flip of a coin. I wanted something familiar and comfortable: perhaps the least important criteria to me now. I liked that it was close to home, and heard that the food was good. My four years there were fine (though I would beg to differ about the food), but not life-changing. I met great people and had a great time, but it was post-graduation that my identity began to take shape.

Spit out into the “real world,” it was survival of the fittest: sink or swim. No more parent-subsidised room and board, I was suddenly forced to figure out who I was and why I mattered. Faced with finding jobs that would pay the bills but also help define and refine my skills, I learned as much from figuring out what I didn’t want to do as what I did. My talents and interests developed as my work persona took shape. From filing and fetching coffee to strategic planning and supervising, I grew as a person and as a professional. Thankfully my paycheque grew, too, as I became truly independent: a critical rite of passage.

Why is it, then, that we don’t hold the same pride and allegiance for our former employers as we do for our alma maters? We often spend as much (or more) time at our place of work as on our college campus. We form as significant bonds with our colleagues as we did with our fraternity brothers, albeit at the water cooler instead of the keg. We invest more energy into our day job than we did into our senior thesis. And, when our time at a particular company is done, we emerge stronger, more talented and more mature (which is more than some of us can say for college).

Sure, our list of former employers appears on our LinkedIn profile and CV. But it’s time these companies held a more prominent place in our hearts and minds, and we theirs. Each and every position we’ve held—including that telemarketing job I had in Montana—makes up our career DNA, and we are an indelible part of each company’s trajectory.

Corporations have a long way to go in terms of encouraging allegiance amongst their former employees. After all, the more pride we have for these institutions, the more likely we are to be brand ambassadors, business leads and potential boomerangs.

Like colleges, companies need to embrace their alumni and make them feel like a lifelong part of the team. Only then can there be a culture shift around what role our employers play in shaping our identity, inspiring us to leave a legacy that lasts far beyond the exit interview.

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