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TWH#58: The Opportunity is to Offer Significance
And what it takes to be able to do so.
Recently, I came across one of Seth Godin’s daily blog posts that ended like this:
Instead, the opportunity is to offer significance.
I liked that sentence so much that it led me to write this week’s newsletter and title it exactly like that.
Perhaps Seth’s post resonated with me because it crossed my radar around the same time I heard a story I’m going to tell you now.
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“This is What I Come to Work For”
I have a friend, let’s call her Jane, who I have known for a while. She’s a manager at a well-known scaled startup, one of those with really good employer branding that project an image that it’s really great to work there. The reality, of course, as with most places, is not as rosy on the inside.
Jane knows it. In fact, she has recently taken a few months off to recover her mental health that had somehow got lost in the shuffle of the daily grind.
When she went back, the realities of top down control quickly came back into full focus. The entire direction of everything she and her group had been working on got questioned and doubted.
Back to the drawing board.
The usual response has been to get everybody in a room and workshop the hell out of it. This time was no different. Or was it? Right after the 3 intensive workshop days, Jane was telling me about how it played out:
Everyone was engaged the whole time, contributing their ideas and creativity.
She had much less of the usual performance anxiety that shows up for her when presenting to a group. She felt safe and understood among people she loves working with.
An engineering manager who initially appeared to be purely execution-driven exclaimed, “This is great. This is what I come to work for!”
The team came out of the workshop with clarity and energy to tackle next steps: confidently present back to the senior leadership, and execute on their biggest bets in order to learn more.
Previously, due to fear and the need for control, Jane and her peers had tried to have most things figured out before coming together with the team. And then hoping to guide them to their pre-established point of view. That movie usually doesn’t end well and it often didn’t.
This time around, Jane did not tell people what to do. And because of that, they were all required to think. Together, as partners.
David Marquet, author of Turn The Ship Around!, says that when you tell people what to do, they can leave their brain at home. I’ll take that one step further—when you’re told what to do, you also progressively leave your soul at home.
The coolest thing for me was seeing my friend Jane so excited. The way she ran the workshop, with uncompromising trust and respect for the team members and their potential, created a bubble of energy and excitement inside a larger environment that didn’t feel that way.
“Can you imagine if work was always like this?!”, she asked me, wide-eyed.
Yes, Jane. Yes, I can.
Jane excitedly told me she’s now on a mission to expand this to more of her teams. This was almost shocking to me because the Jane I had known in the last couple of years was tired, jaded, cynical, had no belief in herself, and was questioning if the tech world was right for her at all. Now she was a bundle of energy looking to change the world.
One thing I know is that Jane used her time off to work on herself—to do a lot of her inner work. She found a good therapist, she now regularly exercises, and spends a lot more time socially with a handful of good friends. But it all started with her acknowledging that only by working on herself could she change her circumstances.
When she went back to work, although the work was the same, she was not. I could see that by becoming just a little more confident in her skin, she was able to focus more on others. And through that, she created an environment where they could have a great time and produce great work that respected their humanity.
Nothing Works Without Inner Work
It remains to be seen if my friend Jane has now become resilient enough to keep forging on and doing the right thing even when the environment often incentivizes the exact opposite.
But what this short story illustrates for me is that good places to work depend so much on leaders doing their inner work. I have thought about how to “fix work” for years now and I keep coming back to the same root cause: workplaces are a product of the personality, character and inner challenges of their leaders. This is true at the company, department, and team levels.
In Owning Your Own Shadow, Robert A. Johnson writes:
‘People often asked Carl Jung, “Will we make it?” referring to the cataclysm of our time. He always replied, “If enough people will do their inner work.”’
I consider the short-term, efficiency and productivity obsessed way work happens in VC-backed startups no less than a cataclysm of our time. A whole generation of bright, talented and well-intended people is coming off as entitled and idealistic. Meanwhile, their best years are flying by with very few deploying their real potential.
People must take responsibility, like Jane did. Many are certainly smug and entitled, no doubt. However, it’s also true that the systems they exist in aren’t doing anyone any favours. Instead of learning, we are burning out. Instead of creating a whole that is better than the sum of the parts, we’ve resigned ourselves to just be the parts, disconnected from each other.
But as Jane’s story illustrates, when a leader starts resolving some of their inner blockages, the external impact can be enormous. They become more available to others, and they create better systems.
When people exclaim “this is what I come to work for!”, that’s the feedback you want as a leader. When that happens, you no longer need a lot of processes, rules, and regulations. You don’t need to tell people what to do because they’ll gladly bring their brains—and hearts and souls—to work.
All of that simply because you tapped into something unique with enormous business value: significance.
And that’s the opportunity.
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Until next week, have a good one! 🙏