An au­thor and PWC lead­er­ship ex­pert ex­plains why suc­cess leaves so many peo­ple feel­ing empty — and what to do about it.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Karen Chris­tensen

Jesse Sostrin

In your work with se­nior lead­ers you have found that suc­cess of­ten leaves peo­ple feel­ing empty. Why is that?

In many cases, what peo­ple thought was a ‘mean­ing­ful pur­pose’ was merely their pur­suit of suc­cess — and these are two very dif­fer­ent things. Once we reach a ca­reer mile­stone, the gap be­tween what we ex­pect to feel and what we ac­tu­ally feel can come as a sur­prise. Emerg­ing lead­ers of­ten make ba­sic as­sump­tions early in their ca­reers about what is driv­ing them, but these drivers aren’t well de­fined and they are of­ten pre­scrip­tive in na­ture: ‘land that job’; ‘snag a pro­mo­tion’; ‘make a name for my­self ’, etc. As a re­sult, mile­stones achieved along the way — which you as­sumed would be in­trin­si­cally valu­able and per­son­ally mo­ti­vat­ing — turn out to be empty suc­cesses.

The role of pur­pose in or­ga­ni­za­tional life is re­ceiv­ing a lot more at­ten­tion these days, and for good rea­son. Whether it’s from an en­ter­prise-wide per­spec­tive or from an in­di­vid­ual van­tage point, align­ing val­ues and pur­pose to cre­ate re­sults

with in­tegrity is squarely on the minds of to­day’s lead­ers. Of course, achieve­ment still mat­ters, but the im­pact of any achieve­ment will only be one di­men­sional if it is dis­con­nected from a per­son­ally-rel­e­vant rea­son as to why it mat­ters. A fo­cus on ex­ter­nal achieve­ments alone tends to leave us ask­ing, ‘What’s next?’

What is in­volved in sep­a­rat­ing mean­ing from achieve­ment, and why is it im­por­tant to do that?

Our fo­cus on ex­ter­nal achieve­ments can dis­tract us from the day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ences that could pro­vide us with a deeper sense of mean­ing. When we nar­rowly de­fine mean­ing or pur­pose as a sin­gu­lar ‘thing’ to pur­sue, it be­comes sep­a­rate from us, and we alien­ate our­selves from the ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences that can de­liver the very mean­ing we seek.

I ad­vise peo­ple to write down the ‘thing’ that they’re pur­su­ing. What ex­actly is it? Then, ask your­self, ‘Why do I care? What is mean­ing­ful about that?’ This will en­able you to tease out your mo­ti­va­tions — and pos­si­bly re­align them. If you fo­cus only on the ex­ter­nal side of things, achieve­ments will el­e­vate you, but they won’t nec­es­sar­ily evolve you. There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween the two.

What is the dif­fer­ence be­tween ‘big P’ and ‘lit­tle p’ pur­pose?

It’s use­ful to think about pur­pose in two di­men­sions. The first is that over-arch­ing ori­en­ta­tion to what mat­ters most — I call it (big P) Pur­pose. The other is a smaller, more spe­cific con­nec­tion to ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences that are mean­ing­ful in some way, and I re­fer to that as (lit­tle p) pur­pose.

As a lead­er­ship coach, I am con­stantly work­ing with peo­ple who feel pres­sured to have their big P pur­pose de­fined — that epiphany that ‘gets you up in the morn­ing’ and has the grav­i­tas to build your life around it. Those are won­der­ful when they hap­pen, but if that’s all you’re try­ing to pur­sue, you will miss out on a lot of lit­tle-p op­por­tu­ni­ties. These are things that pro­vide a day-to-day sense of con­nec­tion with peo­ple and the world around you and have rel­e­vance and mean­ing to you. Think about some of the rou­tine events that are mean­ing­ful to you, such as devot­ing time to things you en­joy and mak­ing a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence for oth­ers.

In my case, I feel to­tally re­newed when I am able to get out into na­ture and go for a run on a trail or along the coast. That is one thing that achieves my lit­tle-p pur­pose on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. It doesn’t set my life on a new course, but it al­lows me to con­nect with some­thing mean­ing­ful.

For read­ers who don’t know how to ar­tic­u­late their pur­pose, what is your ad­vice?

This may sound coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but one of the most ef­fec­tive ways to start is to stop read­ing, lis­ten­ing to pod­casts, and look­ing for an­swers from ex­ter­nal sources. In­stead, look within. No­body else can de­fine your pur­pose for you. You must do it for your­self.

First, se­lect the scale you want to fo­cus on. If it’s lit­tle p’s, try a sim­ple thought ex­per­i­ment. On the right-hand side of a sheet of pa­per, have a col­umn called ‘Achieve­ments’ and on the left, ‘Mean­ing­ful Ex­pe­ri­ences’. Start list­ing items on the right-hand side first, in­clud­ing the im­por­tant ac­com­plish­ments, mile­stones, and tan­gi­ble achieve­ments that are im­por­tant to you in both the short and long term. Once that col­umn is com­plete, con­sider what is per­son­ally mean­ing­ful to you about each achieve­ment, and doc­u­ment that on the left-hand side.

If it’s big-p pur­pose that you want to fo­cus on, I sug­gest com­mit­ting to a ques­tion. Not a sim­ple ques­tion to be an­swered through some an­a­lyt­i­cal process, but a deeper ques­tion that is in­tended to pro­voke your re­flec­tion and in­ner de­bate. For ex­am­ple: In my life and work, what is the one thing I can’t go with­out and why does that mat­ter? Whether it’s this kind of ‘bot­tom line’ ques­tion or an­other one, write it down and look at it from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. Set it aside,

A fo­cus on ex­ter­nal achieve­ments alone tends to leave us ask­ing, ‘What’s next?’

and then re­turn to it to see how your think­ing evolves. Deep per­sonal re­flec­tion and mean­ing-mak­ing are es­sen­tial el­e­ments of mov­ing closer to your pur­pose.

What is the role of self-aware­ness in all of this?

If you can be a stu­dent of your own ex­pe­ri­ence and se­lec­tively ap­ply what you learn to fu­ture sit­u­a­tions, you will ex­po­nen­tially raise the ‘ceil­ing’ of your po­ten­tial im­pact. With­out this, we tend to de­velop blindspots and avoid­ance zones that make us in­flex­i­ble and less likely to no­tice and act upon ar­eas of po­ten­tial growth. But, with trans­parency and a growth mind­set, you can learn from any­one, any­where, any­time — which is the path to great lead­er­ship. For me, self-aware­ness is the glue that holds all of this to­gether. It is a crit­i­cal dif­fer­en­tia­tor be­tween lead­ers who are ef­fec­tive in a par­tic­u­lar en­vi­ron­ment and lead­ers who are ef­fec­tive in any sit­u­a­tion.

What does it look like when a per­son is able to ‘cu­rate’ their at­tributes, skills and ca­pa­bil­i­ties?

It looks a lot like cu­rios­ity in mo­tion, and self aware­ness is the key to achiev­ing it. For ex­am­ple, you might no­tice that some peo­ple linger around af­ter a meet­ing for five or ten min­utes longer, be­cause they want to fol­low up with peo­ple, ask ques­tions and make con­nec­tions. And when there are op­por­tu­ni­ties for self-di­rected learn­ing, such as new train­ing or cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, their hand is the first to go up, be­cause that cu­rios­ity and will­ing­ness to in­vest is part of their path to be­com­ing more ca­pa­ble. These peo­ple don’t wait for per­mis­sion to grow and they don’t need to be told; they nat­u­rally look for ways to go be­yond the job de­scrip­tion and keep them­selves rel­e­vant.

Talk a bit about how our per­sonal val­ues pro­vide a frame­work for find­ing our au­then­tic lead­er­ship voice.

You can’t be true to your­self if you don’t know what you care about. The way a leader com­mu­ni­cates and in­ter­acts with oth­ers is the ev­i­dence of what mat­ters to him or her. By in­creas­ing the align­ment be­tween your val­ues and be­hav­iours, you strengthen your in­tegrity, and that trans­lates into a more con­sis­tent, au­then­tic ex­pres­sion of who you are in the mo­ments that mat­ter. It also gives peo­ple a rea­son to fol­low you.

If you’ve never clar­i­fied your val­ues — or if you haven’t re­freshed them lately — try this sim­ple ex­er­cise: Write down the five to 10 words or phrases that re­flect the in­ter­nal cares, con­cerns and pri­or­i­ties that drive you in life. I rec­om­mend cre­at­ing a first draft, tak­ing some time to re­flect, and then writ­ing a sec­ond draft to val­i­date that the list is re­ally your truth, and not what oth­ers ex­pect or value.

You may find a few of your top val­ues are pretty uni­ver­sal — for ex­am­ple, hon­esty, trans­parency and in­tegrity. How­ever, you may find that this process leads to novel con­cepts and sim­ple-but-pow­er­ful prin­ci­ples such as mak­ing a mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion to oth­ers; do­ing my best work, ev­ery time; or mak­ing some­one’s day a lit­tle bit bet­ter. There is no right or wrong answer. In the end, the real mea­sure of suc­cess is the clar­ity you have around what mat­ters to you, as well as the ca­pac­ity to ex­press those things in all of your tasks and re­la­tion­ships.

Dr. Jesse Sostrin is a Direc­tor in the U.S. Lead­er­ship Coach­ing Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence at Price­wa­ter­house­coop­ers and an ad­junct fac­ulty mem­ber at Cal­i­for­nia Polytech­nic Univer­sity’s Col­lege of Busi­ness. He is the au­thor of The Man­ager’s Dilemma (Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2015) and Be­yond the Job De­scrip­tion (Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2013).

You can’t be true to your­self if you don’t know what you care about.

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