Creating the Conditions for Great Work

Happiness is a how, not a what. A talent, not an object.

Hermann Hesse

I first came across this Hesse quote a year ago while reading Shoe Dog, the memoir by Phil Knight, Nike’s founder. There are many books (“many” being an understatement) written on happiness and what it means, how to be happy, what it looks like, and so on. I have, thankfully, read none of those books. I have, however, tried to understand its presence in work contexts and the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

Happiness, I’ve observed, is fickle. One could choose to be happy one moment and unhappy or not-happy the next. Happy people will find joy or happiness wherever they are. Unhappy people, too, will find ways to be unhappy wherever they are. Last fall, I guest lectured two afternoons at the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University. Following one of the lectures, a student asked if I’d be willing to put together a list of my top 10 pieces of advice or tools and send it to the class. At the top of that list, I wrote, “Hire happy people.”

I believe my role as a leader is to create the conditions for fulfillment, not happiness. At new employee orientation, I share with our faculty and staff that their happiness is their choice. I take responsibility, however, for their fulfillment. Is the work worth doing? Is the work worthy of their passion and their talents? Do they feel like I am – and our institution is – invested in their growth as a professional? Are we creating opportunities for them to make a difference in the lives of their students and their families? Those are questions that cannot be answered in the span of one day, or even a week or a month. The answer takes time and will require an investment from the employee and the employer. There will be days of frustration or disagreement, tension or stress, but that doesn’t mean the work itself isn’t fulfilling. Doing impactful work, and impacting lives, take time, discipline and perseverance.

In 2015, The Children’s School embarked upon a strategic visioning process. The facilitators, Liz and Marie, met with several constituencies to introduce themselves and to lay the foundation for the process and desired outcomes for all of us. When they met with the staff, they asked each of us to answer the question, “Why are we here?” When it was my turn, I said, “I don’t want people here who just want a paycheck. If that’s all they desire, I will lose them to a bigger school that can pay more. And if I do get them, they won’t last long before they go somewhere else. So my job is to make the question, ‘Why TCS?’ really come alive for our staff. The answer, I believe, lies in opportunities to do Great Work, not just good or standard work that one can do in most schools today. That’s my job as the head of school. That’s why I’m here. We won’t hire Great People, or keep them, by giving them standard assignments.”

I’ve had a fulfilling job for seven years now, and I’ve tried to create those conditions for fulfillment for others as well. It’s also one of my non-negotiables for myself and the work I do and the life I want to lead. I want to do Great Work, and I want to work with Great People. If we are known by the company we keep, then that must be true of us professionally as well. If happiness is a how, then fulfillment must be the why, and when the two connect, Greatness is possible.

I look forward to that possibility again in August.

Note: I’m not suggesting at all that happiness and fulfillment are completely at odds with one another. Happy people, research has shown, are more resilient and, therefore, have a better chance at leading more fulfilling lives. Back again to the first point on my top 10 list.

Questions for you to consider:

  1. What are your non-negotiables for the work you [want to] do?
  2. What fulfills you at work?
  3. How do you differentiate between happiness and fulfillment?
  4. What would be first on your top 10 list?
  5. What is the first responsibility of any leader towards their team?