Lessons From Job #1

When I was about 12 years old, I started a pool-cleaning business in my neighborhood in Encino, Calif. I was responsible for cleaning three pools each week, and I discovered quickly that I loved my job. The neighbors heaped praise on me, and though I made very little money, I relished the autonomy and sense of accomplishment.

I remember looking forward to the work and never needed prodding from my parents, like many a 12-year-old, to get out there. Having never read a business book or self-help guide, I had tapped into something fundamental and essential in my work life: I was motivated.

Given the length and breadth of my working life, it is fascinating to think back and realize that my pool-cleaning job jumps to mind as the most satisfying and rewarding of all my professional positions. Don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed most of the jobs I’ve held over the years. I’m one of those people who loves work.

But there was something about that pool job that resonates to this day. Perhaps it was being out in the warm Southern California sunshine every day. Or the lack of a boss telling me what to do and when to do it. Or the words of praise from the pool owners. Likely it was all those things and something else: I had an unfettered passion for the work—I was in exactly the place I wanted to be, doing just what I wanted to be doing.

Many people have that sense of well-being in their jobs. They are the lucky ones who wake up every morning eager to get to work.

For most, however, engagement is a constant struggle, and finding that inflection point between responsibility and rapture is a challenge. Work becomes a means to an end, and the tip of Maslow’s famed pyramid for the hierarchy of needs—self-actualization—remains out of reach. Surveys show just how tenuous employee engagement is. One recent poll reported that just 13 percent of employees are engaged at their jobs!

That is a sobering number. In a world where technology has created layers of alienation and isolation, the price of a disengaged workforce can be steep, with lowered productivity, high attrition rates and sagging customer satisfaction scores.

Given that real wages have stagnated over the past decade, perhaps the solution is higher pay. But we’ve read countless job satisfaction surveys over the years and rarely does compensation finish at the top. In a recent survey of more than 200,000 employees around the world, the top factor that people cited for job happiness was being appreciated for their work. That was followed by good relationships with colleagues, work/life balance and strong relationships with superiors. Salary finished eighth.

In fact, roiling issues in the workplace are nothing new. But we are in the midst of a sea change when we think about how to engage and motivate a workforce. How and where people work has changed dramatically and workforce demographics are undergoing a massive shift. Diversity, gender equality and opportunity for upward mobility continue to spark internal conflict and conversation at most workplaces.

Corporate leaders today are faced with a basic choice. Quarterly results and shareholder contentment remain at the top of the agenda. But a focus on results without an organization-wide effort to achieve growing employee engagement leads to lethargy. Companies that perennially make the list of Best Places to Work understand this, and self-actualization becomes part of the corporate DNA.

So what comes to mind when you think about your best job? What triggers the fondest memories as opposed to the nightmares of terrible work experiences and horrible bosses? Is that feeling I get when recalling my pool-cleaning business attainable in the real world of work? The smartest bosses ought to believe that it is and set their organizations on a path in that direction.

Authors

  • Joel Kurtzman

    Former Editor-in-Chief, Korn Ferry Institute