Thursday, October 16, 2008

Want Your Career to Mean Something? Ask These Three Questions

I'll never forget the guttural moan of the woman across the aisle from me, in seat 26D. It was nearly primal, a combination of bass, regret, woe, shame and despair. I can't blame her. I'd do the same thing if I realized I was at 15,000 feet on my way to the wrong city.

I was returning from my first trip to another country. I'd been in Chile visiting my aunt, uncle and cousins for a week. I'd made my way back from Concepcion, gone through customs in Dallas, and was ready to see my parents and sisters again. I was 17 years old.

Back then, in Dallas, they boarded two flights through the same doorway. Once you got about halfway down the corridor, you were supposed to follow the appropriate signs to your designated jetway in order to board your plane.

That day, the flight to Nashville was leaving out of 34A, which was accessed by turning left. And the flight to Cleveland was headed out of 34B, to the right. Guess who wasn't looking?

We had just passed through 10,000 feet which meant it was safe to turn on approved electronic devices. Then the captain came on and voiced the usual flight time, temperature at our destination, and offered us a hearty welcome and a happy flight to Nashville. And that's when it all clicked for her.

She rapidly pressed the flight attendant call button. And when the attendant appeared, the conversation went something like this:
Where are we going?
To Nashville, ma'am.
You mean we're not going to Cleveland?
No ma'am.
[Awful moan sound.]
There are a lot of reasons that she ended up on that plane that day. And while there's no need to necessarily question the flight attendant each time I board an aircraft, I am reminded of this woman's plight when I hear of people who end up working for companies they're not proud of, seemingly stuck in jobs they hate and feel are devoid of meaning.

This was the topic of a discussion I led for a class of Vanderbilt students this past Monday. These sophomores and juniors are busy thinking about the kinds of companies they'd like to work for one day, and are currently writing a research paper about organizational fit and how they might align with the mission and values of a future employer. Each student is to research a company and analyze how it operates, works, and even changes.

While I primarily discussed how as a social entrepreneur I've been building a mission-driven or values-based business the past two years, I also offered them some simple advice on how to determine in an interview or inquiry process whether or not a company is aligned with their individual values.

Here are three questions you can ask to see if you and a potential employer are on the same page when it comes to values:

Where are we going?
Had my fellow (accidental) passenger asked this question before take off, she'd been in Cleveland a lot sooner. The same goes for you if you're looking to find meaningful work. Ask the interviewer where the company is headed. Get a feel for the focus of key leadership. What's the destination - the land of big profits, no matter what? The improvement of the local community? Job creation? A better and cheaper cell phone? Better relationships with clients? Where is it that the company is going? This can also be a way to tell how the company measures success.

How are we getting there?
What tools will be available to you as an employee? How does the company use and value teamwork? Are corners cut? Is speed important? How is the company seen in the local community? What vendors are used? Yes, the destination is important, but the how can often be as important as the what (or where).

Who's coming with us?
How are new employees brought on board and trained? How are new customers acquired? How do people learn about the company? What's the learning curve? Will I like the people I work with?

By imagining your future employer in this travel-based sense, you'll get a good feel for whether or not you mesh in terms of values. Every company needs to make money to survive - that's understood. But how it makes it and what it does with it and how it understands its customers and employees will say a lot about whether or not you'll enjoy your job and if it's a good organizational fit for you.

No one wants to be 15,000 feet in the air, headed to somewhere they don't want to go.

Comments (6)

After working for myself for seventeen years and then working for the corporate ladder for nine and some change, I can tell you that it wasn't until I joined the non-profit sector and started working for others that the journey was clear.

Where are we going? - We are headed straight toward the fulfillment of our mission: The mission of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival is to educate and entertain the Mid-South community through professional Shakespearean experiences.

How are we getting there? - A non-profit organization, The Festival accomplishes this goal through public performances and educational workshops for young people and businesses. The Festival employs the most talented theatre artists from around Nashville to help create unique and relevant productions and programs that stimulate the creative thinking and communication skills of everyone from business men and women to children throughout Middle Tennessee.

Who's coming with us? - You are I hope! There are opportunities to serve on committees, as interns as patrons and as donors. The four person year round staff and the 30 people on the payroll during production rely on you. The students that are encouraged and gain self-confidence in our workshops rely on you, to be a companion on the journey.
Come fly with us: www.nashvilleshakes.org

Great comment and answers, Nancy. It's great to see that your organization knows precisely where it's headed and that you can communicate that with anyone. That offers you a big advantage when it comes to recruiting others to fly with you.

Hey Sam, great post. I'm in the process of looking to where I'm going to start my career, thanks for the advice...

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