We’ve all had bad bosses. We can summon at least a dozen versions of a ‘bad boss’ in flash. Several of those versions made up the cast of one of the most popular television shows of our time. There was even a movie – and a sequel – titled Horrible Bosses. And yet, we search for jobs, not managers.
What We Want From Work
More and more, people are looking for a job that gives them a sense of purpose. Actually, this is a ‘return to the farm’ in some ways as work was a source of very tangible meaning for the majority of human history. Before the ‘middle manager,’ we worked to gather, hunt, or grow food for our communities; to build homes, make shoes, or transmit news for our kin and neighbors. Work was a concrete contribution to improving the lives of people around us.
The industrial revolution distanced us from the output of our effort. We were cogs in a system, or the operators of those cogs. The knowledge economy emerged, and a large share of the US workforce became managers, consultants, lawyers, and bankers. Those roles are at least three layers separated from the ‘end user’ or beneficiary, if not many more.
Globalization and technology have given these knowledge workers a 24/7 workday that follows them everywhere. Shareholder capitalism, short-termism, and automated equity trading reduced the metrics that determine the value of work to one: profit generated. These factors – not millennial whimsy – explain employees’ growing demand for purpose at work. We want to feel connected to some greater good that results from our efforts.
Purpose Is Personal
Purpose is deeply personal. We each have a purpose that is, by definition, unique to us: the overlap between our skills, interests, and needs and the needs of the world around us. There is no way that a company can serve the sum of its employees’ purposes – that would be chaos. And so to find purposeful work, we look for alignment, not a perfect match.
That alignment between our own purpose and a company’s is manifested – or not – in the manager who guides, oversees, and evaluates our work. It can be hard to see the significance of our work, as cogs in a complex system, operators of those cogs, or knowledge workers half a dozen layers removed. It is a lifelong journey to refine our purpose and connect it to our daily work and lives. But particularly early in that journey, and ultimately throughout, it is a great boon to have managers and leaders who help us connect those dots from their bird’s eye view.
How to Conduct a Manager Search
To find purposeful work, then, find a manager who is firstly, purposeful in their own work, secondly, committed to growing a purposeful team, and finally, has a track record of positive social and/or environmental impact at whatever level of influence they have. These traits map to the Me-We-World dimensions of purpose. Unfortunately, Indeed.com and LinkedIn have not yet found a way to recognize or certify these dimensions of purposeful leadership. How, then, might one search for a manager who will make for a purposeful work experience?
1. Listen to them speak and/or read their writing
Thought leadership happens at all levels in today’s democratized publishing environment. Read whatever a potential manager writes, posts, or says, whether on social media, at industry events or publications, or even on their personal channels. Some executives have professional communications teams, but even then, authentic tone and opinions are often palpable. Individuals’ outlets are certainly less doctored than corporate channels. Find whatever artifacts available to get some sense of the leader’s own sense of purpose. At the very least, you can get at the Me dimension of purposeful leadership by how a potential manager describes the ‘why’ of their work, and your future role, in interviews.
2. Consider their team
In the We dimension, you can look for purpose in what a leader’s team says about them, explicitly or implicitly. Are they purposeful individuals? What is the average tenure on the team? Have any of the members worked with the leader previously at another organization or team? Do team members use the word ‘purpose,’ or speak about company-level goals and outcomes as well as the team’s own narrow metrics? These indicators demonstrate how intentional and effective a leader is about growing a purposeful team.
3. Explore their values and impact
Get as much information about the leader’s own values and what social and/or environmental impact they have been able to have in their role. Intel in this World dimension might be the most difficult to gather. Be creative about your approach and don’t be shy to ask direct questions. A well-suited manager will appreciate your interest even if they’re not having as much impact as they aspire to.
4. Trust your gut
Finally, recognize that first impressions do have merit. Read up on thin slicing if you tend to second guess your instincts. A dream job by title, organization, or benefits loses luster quickly if you aren’t aligned with your manager
Work is changing fast, and the systems we have to find our way to the ‘right’ job have not caught up. Until they do, the most effective job searches will be manager searches, and they will be more creative and personalized than a set of search engine filters.