Sports lingo has so infiltrated American life that I’d wager a tank of gas on the following proposition: More people think a Hail Mary is a pass than a prayer. So I flinch sometimes when I describe the new workforce of free-lancers, consultants, and self-employed knowledge workers as “free agents.” Does it really enrich our cultural vocabulary to import another term from ESPN?
This morning, I’m in Brookfield, Connecticut–a town of Frostian stone fences and Updikian front porches–interviewing John Seiffer (www.coachingworks.com). He’s a coach. But he’s not an athletics coach. The shingle outside his office indentifies him as a “business and executive coach.” He coaches new economy Joes and Janes, many of them free agents. He’ll talk with them once a week for a half-hour and help guide them in their work and lives. Should they leave their job? How should they handle a troublesome new project? Why do their days seem out of balance? John says that for his clients, “economic subsistence is a given.” What’s often missing are the things a few notches higher on the hierarchy of needs. That’s why they hire a coach. Vince Lombardi, meet Abraham Maslow. Coaching is growing like an adolescent Patrick Ewing. There’s a 2,000-member professional association, the International Coach Federation–and a network of institutions that train prospective coaches, including one called Coach U. Something’s going on out here–even if I don’t know exactly what, and even if “executive coach” does sound like a bus that takes Long Island grandmothers to Atlantic City.
Coaches are not the only evidence of the sports world’s linguistic grip on American work. Just today a company named MacTemps announced that it was now a company named Aquent Partners. MacTemps began a decade ago in a Harvard dorm room and quickly became a $100 million firm. It’s one of the staffing industry’s most respected and progressive players. Tossing away hard-earned equity in the MacTemps brand is not something such a company does on a whim. But this temp agency has become a talent agency. Instead of merely brokering deals between companies seeking interim workers and interim workers seeking gigs, MacTemps–that is, Aquent Partners–will be a free agent’s agent. They’ll represent independent professionals in much the same way that sports agents represent individual athletes. They’ll look out for their clients’ interests, find them work, and negotiate deals on their behalf. If the Free Agent Nation has a poster boy, it’s Jerry Maguire.
One final point: Aquent is apparently Greek or Latin for “not a follower.” No, I don’t get it either.