When we talk about “learning to love your job” or “managing yourself,” it’s often in the context of junior or midlevel roles. But these things don’t stop mattering for senior executives. What aspects of their jobs are most important to them? What do they find rewarding? How do they sustain their passion for the work they do — without burning out?
Over the past few years, I’ve had in-depth, one-on-one conversations with hundreds of top business leaders, and questions like these frequently come up. I’ve identified several common themes in our talks, which I’ll share here.
Impact on society. As I was doing research and analysis for my recent book, I found that one of the best ways organizations can create a sense of purpose for their employees is to help connect their day-to-day work with the impact it has in their community and globally. People at the top also need to see the larger difference they’re making, and in some ways, because of their vantage point, that’s easier for them than it is for folks closer to the ground. Senior executives are closely involved in crafting the “story” of the organization — the message that goes out to the world — and they spend a good portion of their time outside the company, talking with stakeholders and observing the organization’s impact firsthand.
When I spoke with John Hass, the CEO of Rosetta Stone, about what his company does, his focus wasn’t just on learning languages. It was much broader than that. Hass talked about understanding culture, resolving conflict, improving literacy rates, and empowering people to confidently communicate with others around the world. He has the perspective to see Rosetta Stone’s reach in these areas because he travels the world meeting customers and spending time with educational institutions and the students and teachers in them. Hass says: “It’s amazing to watch kids beaming with confidence and achieving success in the classroom, or seeing someone who is trying to assimilate into a new country or understand a new culture, to be able to bridge that gap. It’s these things that we do for our learners that make me proud of my company and the work we do.”
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Connection versus constant availability. Senior executives struggle with burnout just like everyone else, and technology has made this issue more prevalent than ever. Although they recognize how important it is to always be connected to what’s going on inside and outside the organization, connectivity doesn’t imply constant availability. Leaders like Ellyn Shook, the chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture, actually carry around “dumb phones,” which don’t have any apps and can’t send or receive email. These phones are the corporate equivalent of the “Batphone” (from the 1960s Batman television show) — only a few people have the number, and it’s used only in extreme circumstances. This allows executives to calmly disconnect while knowing that if an emergency arises, they will be made aware of it.
The importance of peripheral vision. When we’re ridiculously busy, it’s easy to focus only on what’s ahead of us, a bit like a horse with blinders. But senior executives who prosper say it’s critical to have excellent “peripheral vision” so they can pick up on things that fall beyond their expected line of sight. This makes their jobs more exciting and engaging and enhances their performance — all of which reinforces their love for the work they do. Jim Fowler and Jeff Smith talked about peripheral vision in relation to the chief information officer role (Fowler is currently CIO at General Electric, and Smith was formerly CIO at IBM). Both said that while information technology remains a priority for them, they’ve also learned to pay attention to geopolitical issues, global economics, changing workforce demographics, and talent practices. By doing so, they can more readily adapt not just to technology trends but also to organizational and societal trends. They’re much less likely to get blindsided by the changes around them.
Leadership as service. Executives ranging from David Fairhurst, the chief people officer at McDonald’s, to Jeff Wong, the chief innovation officer at EY, describe their roles as positions of service, not power. This is about believing that your job as a leader is to help employees do their best work. When analyzing 252 global organizations for my book, I found that this “coach and mentor” mentality is one of the things employees want the most — but it’s also something senior managers struggle with, because it runs counter to the traditional command-and-control management style that got many of them where they are today. Those who clear that obstacle realize that a key part of their jobs as leaders is transferring their knowledge and skills to others. And once they carve out the time for it, they find it immensely gratifying.
Fairhurst does this by imposing a lot of structure on his regular team meetings: The agendas are agreed on in advance, and he often requires one-page summaries for items to be discussed. He says: “The greater efficiency this creates means that I’m able to make the time for less formal, one-on-one sessions with members of the team, where I can get a better understanding of their career needs and ambitions, share with them some of the insights and experience I have gained over the years, and offer them coaching and guidance on how to further develop their skills and capabilities. These one-on-one sessions are some of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of my job.”
Wong looks at this sort of support as paying it forward. “I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of great leaders’ taking a personal interest in my professional development,” he says. “They cared about how I was developing and growing in my career but also as a manager, leader, and communicator.” He tries to invest in his employees the same way, and that’s where he finds the greatest meaning in his own work: “While achieving goals and milestones is certainly an important part of any career, my personal satisfaction and measurement of ‘accomplishment’ comes from helping others achieve their full potential.”