In 2012, a Georgetown University computer science assistant professor named Cal Newport published his third book, entitled So Good They Can't Ignore You, which offered a unique perspective regarding career advice. Newport argued that "follow your passion" is the worst career advice you can ever subscribe to. And yet, it's probably one of the most pervasive nuggets of job wisdom around. Even Steve Jobs was a believer:
— Shayan Feroz (@Shayanf110) February 10, 2017
In his book, Newport argues that passion comes after mastery, that love for the work happens after committing to learning all you can about it. He lays out how satisfying careers are only built by doing rare and valuable work, which can only be done if you have mastered rare and valuable skills — and these are acquired through deliberate practice of your craft. The best advice then, he summarizes, is to adopt a craftsman mentality: one where you deliberately put in Malcolm Gladwell's theorized "10,000 hours" (though research argues it is less) to learn and master a skill. Only when you master your craft can you acquire the necessary "career capital," which can then be exchanged for more autonomy (control over how you accomplish your work) or for a mission (finding a higher meaning in your daily tasks), both of which lead to a fulfilling career.
Below, Cal Newport gives a talk at the Behance Conference that goes over the key points in his book:
It remains a contrarian viewpoint, especially when you place his book side-by-side with other career advice titles such as Career Match: Connecting Who You Are with What You'll Love to Do, or What's Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job. But at its core is the idea that instead of looking for a job that can give something to you, why not look for a job where you can deliver value by mastering a skill that appeals to you?
Newport's book was written for the individual worker— for those hopping from one job to another in search of the "right" fit, or those trying to figure out their calling so they can match their calling with a job. Even though the book wasn't written for managers who have to lead teams, or for businesses that are struggling to attract and retain talent, So Good They Can't Ignore You doles out some valuable wisdom if you're willing to reverse-engineer Newport's advice.
Assuming of course that you already offer salaries and benefits that are on par with current industry standards, how else can you create a company that gives employees satisfying work and fruitful careers? The answer, as it turns out, involves input from yet another author: Daniel Pink.
In his critical book about motivation and neuroscience, Drive, Pink points out three things that work better than carrots and sticks when it comes to motivation, namely: mastery, autonomy, and purpose.
You Can't Have Mastery Without a Development Culture
Employees who are able to master a rare and valuable skill1 are those that experience the most satisfaction in their careers. And it doesn't even matter what industry or exact skills those are. In a study looking at job satisfaction among college administrative assistants, there was a correlation between the number of years an assistant had spent doing the work and the amount of satisfaction the assistant got from the job. Those with more tenure had the necessary experience and skill set to be of better service to the people they interacted with. They looked at their work as a "calling," and experienced greater job satisfaction because they had put in the time and become experts at their work.
The problem is: how do you get your people to hunker down and master their specific work talents? How do you instill a desire, an itch even, to improve their skills? You need to create a culture of talent development:
- Lead the way. Be the role model by being transparent about your own need to develop and learn, hopefully motivating your people to do likewise.
- Reinforce & reward learning behavior. Celebrate those who complete a training program, finish a course, or upgrade their skills to reinforce the learning culture.
- Build a process for development. Formalize a mentorship program within the company so upcoming talent can benefit from the hard-earned wisdom of executives. Include learning and development objectives in your goals or OKRs, and if possible, find a way to subsidize training costs.
Peter Drucker, author and renowned management consultant, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article about how critical it is to nurture talent in an organization:
"Developing talent is business’s most important task — the sine qua non of competition in a knowledge economy. If by off-loading employee relations, organizations also lose their capacity to develop people, they will have made a devil’s bargain indeed."
Giving Autonomy Back to the Workers
Autonomy translates to having more control over work-related decisions: how workers accomplish tasks, how they schedule their day, how they budget resources, etc. — within well-defined parameters, such as working from home rules, of course. Traditional management is great if you want compliance; self-direction is better when you want engagement. In fact, it is the polar opposite of micromanagement, which is about absolute (often, asphyxiating) control.
Laszlo Bock, former senior Vice President of People Operations at Google Inc., writes about what it takes to grant autonomy in his book Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead:
“All it takes is a belief that people are fundamentally good — and enough courage to treat your people like owners instead of machines. Machines do their jobs; owners do whatever is needed to make their companies and teams successful."
Bock's statement underscores a basic human reality: you are more engaged when you "own" what you're working on.
Take this study from Taiwan, which was conducted among 1,380 workers in 230 community health centers. Workers were given the autonomy to decide what to do in several areas concerning management of the health center, including:
- How they planned and arranged employee tasks
- How they planned to use government-funded budgets and revenue from medical services
- Scheduling their own activities & the community health center's activities
- Deciding which customers they served and how
- Deciding on employee rewards and disciplines
The outcome? Job autonomy resulted in greater job satisfaction for the workers and less intent to leave or transfer from the health center they worked in. In short, giving them back control over their work resulted in engaged employees and higher employee retention in one fell swoop.
Listen to this episode of "The Hidden Brain," an NPR podcast, featuring guest Laszlo Bock (26 minutes long). He speaks about how Google empowers its workers to "own" their work, which results in both happiness and excellence:
What's the Purpose of Our Work, Really?
In 2014, Deloitte surveyed over 1,000 executives and employees regarding the importance of corporate culture, core beliefs, values, and purpose. The study, entitled, “Culture of Purpose: A Business Imperative,” contains two findings that are poignant to this discussion:
- Organizations that focus beyond profit and instill a strong sense of purpose among their employees are more likely to find long-term success.
- 91% of respondents who said their company had a strong sense of purpose also said their company had a history of strong financial performance.
Having a mission that resonates with your employees affects your bottom line! It's not just fluff. It leads to greater job satisfaction — more so than any perk you can whip up. When a company can instill a sense of mission into its work, tasks cease to be burdensome. An employee finds deeper purpose in even the most mundane actions because it makes a difference to others.
Laszlo Bock writes in Work Rules!: "Having workers meet the people they are helping is the greatest motivator, even if they only meet for a few minutes. It imbues one’s work with a significance that transcends careerism or money.”
Finding meaning in an individual's work depends on certain factors: your culture, your socioeconomic status, the way you view the world. According to Michael G. Pratt, PhD, a professor of management and organization at Boston College, three viewpoints are especially likely to provide meaning to workers: the craftsmanship, service, and kinship orientations. These are people who find meaning in work:
- because they take pride in excellent work (craftsmanship),
- because they can assist others in need (service),
- or even because they experience a bond with fellow coworkers (kinship).
So how do you instill a sense of purpose in your organization?
Identify your values:
What do you stand for? If there is no overarching set of values or core beliefs, then it's imperative that you ask your people what they think you stand for. Corporate values will be the underpinning of any mission or vision statement.
Reframe your language:
It's not about you. So find a way to reframe your objectives from, say, "selling 1 million telephones" to "helping 1 million companies communicate more efficiently." By doing so, you successfully refocus your attention away from what you want to accomplish to how your organization can make a difference.
Communicate your purpose:
Once you have your values, purpose, and language sorted out, spread it far and wide to the company. Have everyone memorize it. Organize incentives or peer bonuses around how employees embody your shared values. Include the values in performance reviews. Let everyone know how you intend to make the universe a better place.
Becoming a Place Where People Want to Work
By focusing on these three factors and grafting them into the way your company thinks and acts, you will build a workplace that top talent will flock to.
It won't be for your free lunches or your pingpong tables (as enjoyable as those are). It won't be just because you're offering stock (or not). It will be because your current employees will see their work as meaningful and will evangelize your mission to their networks. It will be because job candidates will see the ability to self-direct as a breath of fresh air. It will be because outsiders will want to work alongside your experts — those workers who in another age would be considered "craftsmen" — in order to learn from them, and strive with them. It will be because, despite your organization's shortcomings and imperfections, people will look up to it and say, "That sounds like an awesome place to work. Sign me up!"
1: Newport defines a rare and valuable skill as one that cannot be easily replicated by someone with less expertise than you. For example: posting Facebook updates is a task anyone can do easily and is therefore not a rare and valuable skill. On the other hand, creating a strategy for social media that will lead to measurable results is a skill that not anyone can do as it requires specific, and unique expertise and training.