The Great Resignation or the Great Rethink?


A friend of mine — I’ll call him Jim — was in the running for a C-suite job at his company, a consumer packaged goods firm. I’ve known him for years, and he’d always seemed happy and fulfilled in his career. So, imagine my surprise when not long ago I got this two-word text message from him: “I quit.”

I texted him back asking if everything was okay. I expected that he would reference a dispute with another leader or a business decision gone bad. Instead, he said, “I’m becoming the kind of person I don’t want to be.”

We spoke on the phone, and he explained that a recent decision taken by leaders at this firm had given him pause. They had acted to secure economic gain at the expense of customers, suppliers, and the environment and seemed unbothered by their decisions, regarding them as “slam dunks.”

The experience had made him realize that he didn’t really believe in his company or its mission. Whereas previously he might have suppressed his growing doubts, the combination of personal health care, the recent death of his father, friction at home, and the prolonged isolation and introspection resulting from the pandemic had prompted him to become more introspective. “Our products aren’t healthy,” he told me. “I wouldn’t want my kids to eat that junk.” The lure of a big paycheck and working for a prestigious and very profitable company had worn off. His only thought was: “Why should I work for this company?”

Many of us are asking such questions nowadays. Unsettled by the pandemic, we find ourselves considering our jobs with a fresh perspective. Some are quitting, in what has been dubbed the Great Resignation. But, for many, it’s more of a Great Rethink. Do we really like our employers’ culture? Do we feel that we’re fairly treated and have the advancement opportunities we want? Most profoundly, does our work feels as meaningful as we’d like it too?

For those answering no to any of these questions, and looking for more purpose-driven work, my research can help. I’ve gone deep inside dozens of companies, interviewing more than 200 leaders to understand how they bring purpose alive for their employees and other stakeholders in extraordinary ways. My primary aim was to unearth best practices for what I call “deep purpose” organizations, but I also unearthed some strategies that individuals can use to find more meaning in their careers and lives. Studies show that this can lead to greater fulfillment and even longer lives, so why not give it a try?

So, what should you do?

First, know thyself. Almost to a person, the leaders and employees at deep purpose companies whom I’ve met all harbored a burning ambition — an intention they pursued with almost existential fervor. They knew what they’d been put on this planet to do, and that clarity drove them, shaped the choices they made and inspired others to embrace their own purposes.

And this isn’t just a C-level pursuit. When the professional services firm KPMG rolled out its 10,000 Stories Challenge program, inviting employees to make posters highlighting the purpose they found in their jobs, the contributions were inspiring. One employee who helps banks fight money laundering wrote, “I combat terrorism.” Another who helped small farmers secure financing used the phrase “I help farms grow.”

What’s your personal purpose? Take some time away from the rush of daily life and think about what matters to you and what you’re trying to accomplish. What is your ultimate reason for being? Recognizing that your time on this planet is limited, what do you really hope to achieve?

Second, evaluate whether you truly need purpose on the job. We seek meaning and fulfillment in different professional and personal contexts. For instance, someone who defines their personal purpose as “helping others to learn and grow” might do that outside of work in their role as a parent, mentor, or coach (life purpose). They might pursue it indirectly by working in a non-education role for a learning-focused company (organizational purpose) or in non-teaching but still educational roles (career purpose) or directly as a teacher or professor.

If you’re making good on your life purpose outside work, you might be able to tolerate a job, career, or employer that is light on purpose but affords other benefits. In other words, it’s okay to have a day job. It is however becoming clear that fewer people are willing to go this route and more of us are seeking coherence across different facets of our lives.

Third, if you find you do need or want purpose at work, try “job-crafting.” Shape your role to become more purposeful by adjusting the tasks you take on, which colleagues, customers, or other stakeholders you interact with, and your own mental framing of what you’re doing. Delegate the work that doesn’t feel as meaningful to you but might to others, raise your hand for new projects that connect with your goals, and reach out to like-minded and uplifting teammates.

Fourth, evaluate your boss. Do they help you realize it by allowing you to express your individuality and giving you work that feels important to you? A notable example is Pete Carroll, coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Although many professional football coaches take a tough-love, drill sergeant approach, Carroll focuses on developing deep, personal relationships with his players so he can draw out their individual philosophies and reasons for being.

As Carroll sees it, this is the way individuals reach their highest potential and bond to the team’s purpose. “If someone feels you’re recognizing who they are and what they’re all about,” he says, “you’ve opened up the connection to introduce them to the collective purpose.”

These bosses are out there — you just have to look for them.

Fifth, take a closer look at your employer. As my research found, some companies really do succeed in not merely instituting strong organizational purposes but in helping their employees connect to it in their own ways.

For example, the Boston-based women’s technology firm Ovia Health has adopted as one of its core values “Be yourself, be candid, be kind,” and it comes to life in many ways: online forums where employees can discuss personal hobbies, an emphasis on diversity and inclusion throughout the firm, and an approach to decision-making that actively incorporates employee opinions.

If your company doesn’t help you cue into your personal purpose, you might want to keep an eye out for firms that do. At Microsoft, the approach is similar. As chief people officer Kathleen Hogan told me, “You won’t fully work for Microsoft until you make Microsoft work for you.”

If your organization doesn’t help you cue into your personal purpose, you might want to leave for one that does. Sometimes a change of scenery does work wonders. It did for Jim. A year after quitting his old job, he took a new one in a company-oriented around sustainability and responsible business, which better aligns with his own, personal purpose. He earns much less than before but says he’s more energized about and proud of his work. “I feel much more whole,” he says. Contrary to some pundits who have described the great resignation as the real upgrade in which people simply want to get paid more, in this instance, it was more of a great rethink.

As I learned from talking to people in all the companies I studied, it is possible to find deep purpose at work. But recognize, as well, that there are no shortcuts. You must step back and reflect carefully on yourself and your situation and do what you need to feel fulfilled.

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