30 Mar. 2012 | Comments (0)
I had just woken up in a hotel in San Jose, California, last week and I was brushing my teeth when I suddenly felt a powerful wave of something I can only describe as joy. Perhaps oddly, it was about my work. I love what I do, virtually every aspect of it. That amazes me, because what I do is run a business — a consulting business — which is something I never imagined myself doing.
I'm a child of the 1960s. I grew up with an aversion to all conventional institutions — the government, the military, big unions and especially big businesses.
When I went to college, the people who majored in business were the jocks and the nerdy losers. No one I hung out with wanted to work in a big company, or in a company of any kind.
I became a journalist, right around the time Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story. I wanted to break big stories, rock the establishment, expose injustice, and make a difference.
I had my share of success as a journalist, writing for the New York Times, Newsweek, and New York, and later a book titled What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America.
Even at that, I rarely felt my work was making much of a positive difference in the world. In several instances, I took on assignments simply to make money. I rarely loved what I was doing, and over time, I got to like it less and less. Eventually, I concluded I didn't like writing itself, and that I'd chosen it mostly because I was better at it than anything else.
Finally, in 1999, I switched careers entirely. I'd always been deeply interested in human behavior, and especially in how and why people grow, develop, and perform at their best. The career change was an opportunity to work with a sports psychologist named Jim Loehr, who had come up with fascinating ways to help athletes perform better under pressure.
Jim wanted to bring his work into the corporate world. I saw this as an opportunity to think more deeply about human behavior — and to influence it positively. We agreed to collaborate. Our primary focus was teaching employees how to take better care of themselves physically to improve their performance.
In 2003, I went off and founded my own company, The Energy Project, with a broader mandate to help organizations do a better job of energizing, engaging, focusing, and inspiring their employees, not just by better meeting their needs physically, but also emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
The result is that I spend much of my work life thinking about what fuels and motivates people. For me, it's the enormous satisfaction I derive from helping people become more of who they're capable of being. It's a win-win. Doing so makes them better and more productive workers, which is good for companies. It also empowers them, and improves their lives.
Even on the most difficult days — and there have been plenty of them — I feel privileged to be doing something I believe in, and to collaborate with other talented people around a shared mission. Even writing, which I had come to dread, is now vastly more enjoyable.
I've met relatively few people in any corporation who feel passionate about their work, and only a handful of leaders who communicate a strong sense of purpose to employees — who make them believe that what they're doing really matters.
The most reliable source of purpose comes, I believe, from serving something larger than ourselves — from adding value to what once was called "the commons."
There are many companies whose products and services don't add any discernible value to the greater good. But that doesn't preclude individuals finding a purpose — a way to add value — and feeling energized by it.
As Marian Wright Edelman once put it, "We must not, in trying to think about how we can make the big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to the big differences we often cannot foresee."
At the same time, galvanizing employees around a shared mission — especially one that palpably adds value to the world — gives companies a huge competitive advantage. Just look at the engagement of employees at companies such as Apple, Google, Genentech, and the Ritz Carlton.
If you're a leader, what do you and your company truly stand for and how can you more powerfully communicate that mission to those you lead?
If you're an employee, what can you do to invest your work with a greater sense of meaning and value?
In my case, it took switching careers altogether, but I know that's not always required.
Set aside an hour or two over the next week and begin to consider this question. I plan to write more about potential answers in the coming weeks. In the meantime, making your purpose the object of your attention is a critical first step.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/31/2011.
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