Good managers have been trying to find ways to make work more rewarding from time immemorial. As we meet with those kinds of leaders, many tell us it’s just common sense to sit down with each of their people regularly and work on career development. After all, it’s one of the few things they do control. It usually takes years to affect an employee’s compensation in a meaningful way, and they can’t give out better perks or benefits if an employee is rocking it (I’m going to give you a better dental plan, Johnson; I’ve seen your kids and they’re a mess). No, what managers can do is help their people develop. As Eric Clayberg, a software engineer manager at Google, said: “Engineers hate being micromanaged on the technical side, but love being closely managed on the career side.” Don’t we all?
Now this practice has a name: We call it job sculpting. What does it entail? It’s the art of forging a customized career path to help employees do a little more of what they find motivating and little less of what frustrates them—increasing your chances of retaining and engaging talented people. While sometimes sculpting might involve substantial changes in responsibilities, and might even eventually mean facilitating a team member’s move to a new role in another team, we’ve found that these cases are rare. Most often relatively small changes in responsibilities or work situations create huge boons in the productivity and loyalty of team members.
The simple but profound truth in job sculpting is that when people’s jobs give them the opportunity to do more of the kinds of things that satisfy their key motivations, they are going to be happier and more engaged in their work. Seems logical, right? But there is a prevalent notion that if people are unhappy with their work it will take a Herculean effort to change things, that they might have to quit and find their dream job. For the vast majority of people, that’s just nonsense. Most don’t need to take a risky leap; they just need to make small changes in their work lives. The happiest people we’ve spoken with didn’t find their bliss down a new path; they made course corrections on the path they were already on. And managers play a key role in this process.
Jose Maria Zas is American Express’s president of global card services for Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Latin America. He told us, “The best results I achieve is when I take the time to create individual ‘profiles’ of each team member, including their professional strengths and development opportunities along with their personal motivations. I get to know not only their career goals but their life goals. Using this analysis, I can then build teams that will complement and drive one another.”
Some further wisdom comes from James Waldroop, who served as co-director of the MBA Career Development Program at Harvard Business School for 19 years, and Timothy Butler, who is the program’s current director. They have found that Harvard MBAs they place into jobs are more likely to stay and stay committed if the work matches more of their deeply embedded life interests. These are not hobbies or personal interests, but their work passions. “Deeply embedded life interests do not determine what people are good at—they drive what kinds of activities make them happy. At work, that happiness often translates into commitment. It keeps people engaged, and it keeps them from quitting,” they said.
These two PhDs argue that leaders can gain a competitive advantage through this process—not only in retaining and engaging talent, but in making it clear during recruiting that personal development is a priority in their workplaces. For instance, Waldroop and Butler have noticed that firms recruiting their students have a significant advantage over competitors when they emphasize a commitment to helping their professionals think about and manage their careers—a fact that many of their MBAs cite as key in choosing one firm over another.
But then, of course, managers must deliver on the promise. How?
That takes a little persistence and a touch of resourcefulness. For instance, a salesperson with a passion for quantitative analysis might be given a stretch assignment to work with market research, while still selling. An engineer who yearns to be more creative might help the communication team design new sales support materials or user manuals—again, while retaining her primary role in engineering.
John Lowery, CEO of the 300 person Michigan firm Applied Imaging, says this process means paying attention to the little things you hear from your people: “We have a technical specialist who loves photography, so we’ve asked him to take pictures at our corporate events. He brings every bit of equipment imaginable and is so engaged. We have a woman on our front desk who is an English major. We asked if she would mind proofing our company brochures before we go to print. She said: ‘I’d love to do that.’ She’s given us great feedback, and does she ever feel valued!”
Harvard’s Waldroop and Butler cite the example of Carolyn, a star analyst they met at a leading Wall Street firm, who was talented at designing sophisticated quantitative approaches. Executives tried to ensure Carolyn’s loyalty by giving her above-average raises and bonuses, but unbeknownst to them, she was thinking of leaving. Although she enjoyed the analysis and math in her work, she wanted to have more of an impact on decision making and group direction—a say in who the group hired, how the team was structured, and how they could interact better with other areas of the company. In short, she was motivated by developing others and being in charge (what we call ownership).
The story does have a happy ending. Carolyn and her boss sat down and arrived at a player-coach role for her as coordinator of research. She continued to do her work as an analyst, but also assumed a leadership role on a couple of cross-functional teams. They got her involved in hiring and promotion decisions, and she was asked to sit in when the executive team brainstormed on strategic direction. A year later, leaders said the research group had never been more productive, and Carolyn was happy and engaged.
It must be said that this kind of tailoring approach involves people doing things that you actually need done, not just those they would like to do more of. Just because an employee enjoys doing an activity doesn’t mean they should do more of it or that your team needs more of it done. In some cases, we also must accept that the person might not be good at what they love to do. The activity must be not only motivating but also a strength for the person, or something they can realistically get better at with time and effort. Work is not simply about people pursuing passions. If it were, we would have a surfeit of professional chocolate tasters and secret agents. No matter how hard the two of us try, we’ll never play professional hockey or win The Voice. Things we are passionate about, but not very good at, are what we call hobbies.
So, how can managers tailor jobs to optimize a bit more of their people’s enthusiasm and talents, all within the boundaries of what’s best for the team and its performance mandates?
Dan Helfrich of Deloitte asks his people: “What do you want to get better at?” to help determine their core motivators. “I want to know about a challenge they feel ready to take on, but haven’t been given the chance to do in another team. Then as the time goes along, wow, the alignment that comes from giving them small tasks or opportunities that align with what they shared with you.”
Helfrich gave us the following example: One of his team members was the hub of coordination for multiple workstreams. The woman knew the status of everything that was going on in the team. “But,” he said, “she shared that she was starting to feel like a reporting mechanism; she wasn’t being given a chance to think creatively or strategically. She had this skill set as a conductor that was highly regarded, but it felt limiting to her.” So Helfrich assigned the woman to take the lead on a new project, allowing her to work with a blank whiteboard and lead the creative process as opposed to taking other people’s whiteboards and making sense of them. “That has unlocked career growth that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” he added.