Mitch Barns, the new Nielsen CEO, recently recounted a story of how a young leader who asked him two pointed questions at a Q&A session. “Do you think the work we do has any redeeming social value? And more specifically, do you think our work does any good in the world?”
I’m sure this is a question that has emerged from the mouth of many a millennial–and, if we’re being honest, from ours as well.
It’s an age old question. Karl Marx called it the alienation of labor, when the fruits of labor can’t be seen by the laborer. Greek mythology brings us Sisyphus, a former king punished by the gods to push an immense boulder up a hill and watch it roll down and do it forever. The book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible says: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and that what I toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind”.
The more meaning, purpose, and significance you can ascribe to your work, the more likely it is you’ll work harder, be more productive and successful, and enjoy it along the way. Daniel Pink in his book, “Drive,” further articulates meaning/purpose/significance as self-direction, learning, and creating, and doing better for oneself and the world as keys to high performance cultures. The question is can you see it in your job, in your company, and in your industry?
There are three ways to look at the world regarding meaning, purpose, significance at work. First is the view that no work has it. Second is the view that only some work has it. Finally, some believe all work has it.
The first view is one that many hold–and one that retirement services marketers love to espouse. Just hang in there long enough, and then bliss will come in when you’re done working. But according to NPR, only 29% of retirees said leaving the workforce made their lives better.
The second view is also popular. Companies that are more mission-oriented (such as healthcare and non-profits) or more future-looking (such as technology starts ups) or frankly more fun/high passion categories (such as entertainment companies) have an advantage in this regard. Other companies are left with more ‘means to an ends’ view, like “I’m providing jobs”. Which is good to have something, but it could leave an employee thinking the grass is greener.
I believe nearly all work has tremendous meaning, purpose and significance. Author and pastor Tim Keller notes that certain professions—say, if you’re a meth dealer—may be excluded. Mitch Barns’ answer is that meaning at work comes from creating and providing, but also that measurement matters for growth and innovation. As Bill Gates put it in his recent Gates Foundation annual letter: “I have been struck again and again how important measurement is to improving the human condition.” All businesses create and provide products and services that provide real benefits, otherwise, people wouldn’t buy them. And importantly, different consumers may draw different benefits and meaning from your products. The key is to make sure everyone in the company truly understands the diversity and depth of those benefits.
A great way to discover your work’s true meaning is to go deep with consumers with extreme behavior. Most companies actively try to weed out ‘odd consumers’ as anomalies. But they can be extremely insightful.
Don’t believe me? I once spoke to a woman who worked in retail who loved office products. It was extremely important to her identity to have her paperwork organized, beautifully symmetric, and aesthetic. Her company wouldn’t provide her a good three-hole punch to organize all the contracts she got. So she took her favorite single-hole punch that did the job so well. After hearing her story, we gifted her a heavy duty three-hole puncher (retail cost ~$25). She started to cry as she was deeply grateful…not just for the hole puncher, but because she knew she was truly understood without being judged, but celebrated for who she was and what was important to her. Seeing a customer like this can provide a huge lift to employees of an office supply company, who probably don’t view their products as inspirational or empowering.
Another way to go deep is via psychological drawings. It’s a great way of unlocking not just rational benefits, but deeply emotional and amazing life aspirational benefits that their favorite categories provide. Generac, the leading standby generator manufacturer (machines that provide backup power when your power goes out), did this and unlocked a well of emotion that they hadn’t seen before. They saw men drawing their generators as super heroes protecting their family, and women drawing the fear of being without one like sinking on the Titanic. This exercise led them to change their marketing from technical specs to testimonials of real consumers telling their stories of how Generac saved their lives and homes. It has helped their business double in the last 2 years to $1.2 billion.
Every category has these consumers. And every consumer has a story to tell that can not only energize a culture, unleash innovation, and drive significant profitable growth. Which means every company can grow. And this is the meaning, significance and purpose I get from my work.
But companies routinely underestimate the meaning, purpose and significance because they don’t look hard enough at the diversity and depth of their consumers. Sadly, this is often because the leaders of a business are not necessarily themselves consumers of the business. I know of one firm where 60% of its top employees were emotionally blasé about their category. I would assert that businesses with truly strong cultures are companies where nearly all the employees are consumers or are deeply embedded with their consumers.
Maybe someday, more companies will make being an invested consumer of the category a potential requirement for recruiting and rewarding. Maybe we’ll hire not just for demographic diversity, but also for diversity in consumer behavior. Imagine a beer company recruiting a cadre of hard-core wine and spirits drinkers? It may not be a bad idea to follow the Godfather’s advice to ‘keep your friends close…and your enemies closer.’ Maybe LinkedIn and search firms will have a series of profile questions that allow us to list what products and services we are hard core consumers of. Wouldn’t that make it easier for folks to find their dream job?
Imagine how much faster you could grow your career, your company and your industry if we were all in our dream jobs, working side by side with a deeply understood, diverse set of consumers who were also our colleagues?