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Month: April 2009

When Careers Click

A woman was called in front of a Texas grand jury after she shot a mugger 6 times in the back as he was running away with her purse. When asked why she shot the man 6 times, she replied under oath: “Because when I pulled the trigger the 7th time it only went click.”

Over the past few months, four mentally healthy top level professionals quit their job, without another job. Each had felt unsatisfied in their career for a few years: “I hung on hoping things would work out. I began dreading coming to the office. I felt more and more discouraged. Then I was just empty.” Click.

No they didn’t shoot their boss in the back, though a couple of them had considered it. When we allow ourselves get burned out at work, it is easy to talk ourselves into a melodramatic escape. Like many achievement driven people, these folks decided to seek advice after the relationship ended, which makes for an uphill battle. If you know someone who may be on the verge of a career click, he or she might find some preventive help by talking for a while about the following research and story.

“Autonomy, complexity and connection between effort and reward are the three qualities that work has to have, for most people, if it is to be satisfying.” writes Malcolm Gladwell in his new career book, Outliers – A Story of Success. His study shows that these three work factors are common at all socioeconomic levels: from the lucrative career of Bill Gates, to the profession of airline pilots, to the highly technical occupation of the near poverty level rice farmers in China. Gladwell’s three characteristic are foundational, but there is a fourth trait equally as important.

Fifteen years ago I uncovered this trait while working with a group of credit collectors. Like many of you, I expected burnout and turnover to be rampant in this type workplace, but retention and morale was high. Soon I saw why. Each collector was empowered to solve complex cases either by tracking down delinquent deadbeats to pay up or by counseling good people in-a-fix who needed a new payment plan. An incentive bonus check rewarded their results. This group experienced Gladwell’s three qualities in spades, but they didn’t stop there. One day they noticed the names of the same elderly customers on the call list every month. It was discovered that these seniors had money, but intentionally paid late. Why? They were lonely, so lonely that they risked ruining their credit just to have a person, who was not trying to sell something, call and talk for a while. The collectors proposed a solution “you pay your bill on time and we will call you.” Each collector now has a non-collection call list. Their calls are never late.

This fourth quality could have many names: small acts of kindness, going the second mile, paying it forward, but my choice term is coined by my friend George. He calls this a “good turn”.

Working Journal Entry: Autonomy – Complexity – Connection between effort and reward – Good turn. The more of these four qualities you design into your career today, the better primed you will be to handle any potential clicks in leadership and life in the future. It’s worth a shot.

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