The title should say “with whom one works.”
But “who you work with” is how people actually talk. And I want this article to be easy and useful to read.
At ghSMART, we use a lot of data in our consulting work. And to discover valuable insights for our books, we analyze large datasets of successful and unsuccessful careers. These datasets take decades of work, and tens of millions of dollars, to collect and analyze.
So what I’m about to do is a departure from our normal way of giving advice. It is somewhat of a guilty pleasure to not have the data, nor the answer.
But we have an extremely interesting question for you to ponder, as you think about your own job happiness.
Conventional wisdom says that your job happiness comes from one of these four sources:
- “follow your passion” (what)
- “play to your strengths” (what again)
- “do something with purpose” (why), or
- “live your values” (how).
95% of career success books follow one of those lines of advice.
But what if it’s the wrong advice?
What if your job happiness comes not from what you do, why you do it, or how you do it, but instead comes mostly from who the people are around you?
Your bosses. Your customers. Your peers. Your subordinates.
Here are some examples that come to mind, which made me consider this question.
The most important item on Gallup’s Q12 questionnaire (their twelve questions that predict engagement, satisfaction, and retention), as I understand it, is this one: “To what extent do you have a best friend at work?” I remember thinking that is a weird question. “What does that have to do with anything?” I wondered in the past. But it’s not so weird if the “who” theory of job satisfaction is true.
What if who you work with is more important than what the work is that you do?
I know a talented MBA who works for a public-private partnership with a mission that would make any do-gooder proud. But he is planning to quit that job because he feels the firm’s leadership disregards the noble human element of their work, bickers internally, and lacks integrity. I’m reminded of a well-researched fact I learned during graduate school that employees don’t quit jobs, they quit supervisors.
What if who you work with is more important than the purpose of your organization?
During a pro bono project my firm was doing for the U.S. Navy, my colleague and I observed a very grueling training exercise. And when I say grueling, I mean super grueling, as in “the most grueling work you could imagine a human body doing voluntarily.”
I asked one of the instructors, “How does anybody (in their right mind—that part I left out, out of respect) decide to sign up for this?” I was expecting to hear something about patriotism, something about the price of freedom, or something about taking on a challenge and proving you can do it. The instructor lowered his voice and looked me square in the eye.
The instructor explained, “It’s the people. The camaraderie. To be a part of a special group. A community where we have each other’s backs. Yes, it has to do with love of country too, but that’s more of the intellectual reason we do it. The more visceral, emotional, deep-down thing that brings us here—despite how hard the training is—it’s the relationships.”
What if who you work with is more important than how the work gets done?
Some of the most talented people I’ve ever met leave McKinsey or Bain or Goldman Sachs to join ghSMART because they say they love the people here. “Talented but down-to-earth; generous, high-integrity, considerate, and fun” is what they tell me. I’m really proud of the people at our firm. One of my colleagues, Jim, is celebrating his 17-year anniversary at the firm tomorrow. Does Jim stay because of our consulting methods (the “what” of our business)? I doubt it. Does he stay even because of our Credo to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world (the “why”), or because he has the freedom to control his own calendar (the “how”? Maybe. But if you ask him, I bet you he would say he has stayed 17 years more than any other reason because of the leaders we serve, and the people on our team.
What if the secret to job happiness is who you work with? Well, then what?
It would mean you should plan your career differently, right? To focus a bit more on the “who” relative to the “what” “why” and “how.”
Rather than meditate for too long on your passion and purpose, you could think about the kinds of people you really want to be around. Who do you want to be your customers? Who do you want to be your colleagues? What sorts of personalities? What sorts of academic backgrounds? What sorts of needs and wishes and concerns and preferences and dreams would you want them to have, ideally?
Rather than sourcing job titles, you could be sourcing bosses and colleagues you want to work with. I recently told a young job-seeker, “Don’t just go find any old job in your industry. The most important thing you can do right now is to find the right boss—to hire your boss. Hire the best boss in your industry—someone who is going to teach you, invest in you, tell you the truth, give you real feedback, put energy into helping you discover your ideal path, and then help you achieve it.”
And once you land at your new dream job, be mindful of the time you are spending with the people you want to work with. Don’t just track your goals and results, track the time you are spending working with the specific people in your company who you want to work with. For example, what % of your projects over the past six months were serving on client teams led by the Partners you have identified you really want to work with?
Finally, rather than only master the “what” parts of your job, build your skills around the “who” parts of your job. Like who you hire. One way to work with the right people is to join a team. The other way is to build your team with the right people. You can build your skills around hiring talented teams if you come to a workshop I’m hosting this fall.
And if you think these tactics are useful, please download our other free leadership tools at SMARTtools for Leaders™.
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