There are two simple words that have the power to completely change one’s approach to work and life forever. These words have the potential to evoke fulfillment, enhance productivity, and create daily peace of mind.
You may have found yourself saying some of these already today:
- I have to go to this team meeting.
- I have to get this proposal to our client.
- I have to get caught up on emails.
- I have to take the kids to practice.
We act as if we don’t have a choice, as if we are imprisoned by people or a system forcing us to do things we don’t want to do. We do have a choice. We have the freedom to choose our actions, our profession, our financial needs, and the path of our life. Each day is not about what we “have to do”. It’s about what we get to do.
So, besides having a renewed sense of gratitude for being alive in a free world, why does this matter?
If you start to realize that your employees don’t have to come to work each day but instead choose to, there must be a reason for that decision. That reason is their “why”. As a leader, understanding each employee’s “why” will enable you to create a meaningful career path for them, empower them during times of burnout, and help them stay engaged. As your own leader, knowing your own “why” is essential for each of those situations as well.
Start with a simple exercise. Take out your pen, and write down your answer to this question: “What is your why?” It sounds like a big esoteric question, but why is it that you choose to go to work each day? Why do you choose this profession, instead of something else? Why do you choose the role you are in, as opposed to others?
Encourage yourself and others to press beyond the obvious answer of “I need to make money”. There are countless ways to earn a living; why have you chosen this one?
Once you begin to list all your why’s, you will notice they fall in two categories. The first category is like Maslow’s lowest hierarchy of needs – food, water, shelter. “I’d like to be able to pay my mortgage.” “I want to send my children to college.” “My elderly parents will rely on me to provide for them.” “I have always dreamed of buying a vacation home.”
The second category recognizes that there is a bigger purpose, a desire to make a difference, and a need to higher meaning behind the choices we make. It’s these things that are connected to your overall purpose, your sense of contribution, and the most important aspect of your “why”. Both categories are important and not mutually exclusive. An individual who only cares about money will likely live with a void in their life, while an individual who is all about the big picture has their head in the clouds but lacks feet on the ground.
Having a deep understanding of your career’s purpose is equally as possible as meeting and exceeding financial goals. This exercise is around understanding both. If you, or your team, has a hard time articulating this purpose, give some additional guidance:
- When you were first drawn to this industry, what compelled you? Why did this industry or vocation strike you as being the calling for your career?
- At what point in your career were you most challenged? What circumstances created that challenge?
- What circumstances push you to be more, learn more, accomplish more, take on more, and grow more?
- Who or what inspires you most? What qualities inspire you from those individuals or factors?
- What do people compliment you on professionally?
- What are you chasing? Why are you chasing it?
- Given your talents and passions, how could you use those to serve, or to help, others or your organization?
- When you retire, what do you want to be remembered for? What legacy do you want to leave?
When is it important to go back to the “why”? Most of us get entrenched in the day-to-day routine of work, family, and life. We go through most days on autopilot, knowing what is expected and performing to that expectation. Connect the routine of your daily performance to the fulfillment of the “why” of your life purpose.
As a leader, when you know the “why” for members of your team, you can connect that “why” to their daily responsibilities and broader performance milestones. Every job has mundane or less desired tasks, but when the “why” is strong enough, there is meaning connected to even the most tedious of activities. Then the paradigm shifts:
- I get to go to this team meeting because I have team members dedicated to learning and living up to their fullest potential.
- I want to get this proposal to our client because they trust us to solve a problem they cannot solve on their own.
- I want to get caught up on emails because I have knowledge and insight that others are relying on me to share with them.
- I get to take the kids to practice because I am fortunate to have a family and resources to help them live a full and varied life.
There is an opportunity to connect purpose and meaning to each daily activity, and a choice to connect it. When the “why” is strong enough, there is no limit to what you, and those on your team, can achieve.