Why we go to Work

Scott Francis
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I’m often asked why I do what I do by friends who are not in the traveling consultant business.  Been thinking about these types of things a lot lately, as you might have noticed in a previous post.  There are a lot of reasons of course, but there are only a few that really matter:
  1. I love what I do.  Yeah, there are days when it is “work” and days when it is fun, but when I have quiet moments on the weekend, I am grateful to get to do this for a living.  (definition:  “this” in my mind, is building what we believe can be the best BPM practice in the business, and building it from scratch, and all that entails).
  2. I like being able to provide for my family.  There are other careers I would love, most of them don’t pay as well.  Some of them might, if I jump ship.  But I’m glad that what I’m doing allows me to provide for my family.
  3. I love the people I work with.  At each of the last three roles I’ve had at companies, I’ve essentially been able to assemble my team.  In one case I did my recruiting internally, rebuilding a team around the company’s flagship product, responsible for more than $40MM in maintenance revenue every year.  In the next case, we were building up the services practice at Lombardi, where the # of people in technical field services grew (conservatively) 10x in my 4 years there.  I have a lot of good, positive feelings about those people that I helped bring on board.  The same is true at BP3 – we have the kind of team you want to succeed for.  For them as much as for yourself.
  4. Mom and Dad are proud.  Admit it, that matters :)
A couple of recent experiences, and a few recent articles I’ve read, rubbed me the wrong way on this question of why we go to work.  Admittedly, that isn’t the question being asked, but it should have been! Problem #1: How Employers Approach “Why we go to Work” Employers are far too focused on compensation as both a way to create satisfaction and as a source of employee dissatisfaction.  First, I read this article by Joel Spolsky on Inc.com.  The title is appropriately attention-getting: “Why I Never Let Employees Negotiate a Raise“.  I figured that this one would be interesting, right off the bat, and it was.  But I don’t like the outcome.  He starts with the provocative scenario:
What would happen if you got to work one day, went into the kitchen, and saw a list of your employees’ salaries taped to the fridge? Would you freak out? Would you expect to find half of your staff weeping and the other half waiting with pitchforks outside your office door?
I think for one thing, the employees would be rightly pissed off about the invasion of privacy!  Salary information is not just private to the employer, but to the employee.  Joel asserts that keeping salaries secret is a way to avoid paying people fairly.  He might even be right, though no data or studies are cited to back up the assertion, because that interpretation probably fits how some of us feel about it from anecdotal data – we all know someone who was paid pretty out of line with their peers (high or low) somewhere we worked. But Mr. Spolsky’s next statement is, I think, the foundation of my disagreement with his approach to compensation:
When my partner and I started Fog Creek Software, we knew that we wanted to create a pay scale that was objective and transparent.
Aspirationally, this doesn’t sound so bad.  My objections? First, if the goal was fairness, why not say “fair”, rather than “objective and transparent” ?  Notice, the word fair didn’t occur here an the assumption is that if it is objective and transparent it will also be fair (but I can name several examples in life that are transparent and objective – and not fair)… Second, the statement presumes that a pay scale can be objective and transparent – that is the basic assumption going in.  I’ll concede that there is precisely one objective part of compensation: the dollar amount.  And you can make that dollar amount transparent. But the process of selecting the right salary, and the transparency of that process, has limits.  The basic idea is to take your experience + skills + scope of your job, sounds pretty objective.  But then there’s the question of which experience should count – does someone’s .NET programming experience count toward their Java programming salary?  The article proposes that objective skills are pretty easy to arrive at, from newbie to “consistent successes” – but these are subjective judgments that they are making about their employees skillsets – not *objective* assessments, and as such they can never be fully transparent. Ultimately, I’m not a believer in putting a number on someone and assigning salary based on that.  I think a respectful conversation between the employer and employee (or prospective employee) generally will lead to mutually agreeable answers that are less likely to be looked at badly in the future (by either party).  Make sure that if the discrepancies in pay between employees are ever exposed, that you can confidently defend those differences.  If you can, then there’s no reason to fear questions on the subject.  In one important aspect I agree with Mr. Spolksy:  you should *assume* that salary data will get shared at some point, and so you should not do anything you can’t stand behind 100%. Problem #2:  How Employees Approach “Why we go to Work” People (in this case, we can probably just say “Employees”) often approach this question without really thinking about it.  They’re chasing the next rung on the ladder, the next reward, the next bonus, the next project, the next external confirmation of success.  But they haven’t defined, for themselves, what success looks and feels like.  As a result, there’s often an over-focus on compensation.  But Maslow’s hierarchy would tell us that after a certain point, when our income covers our physical needs and safety, that it has diminishing returns (because its utility toward achieving love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization is less than its utility for achieving basic needs). At South-by-SouthWest (SXSW) this year, Tony Hsieh gave a great presentation about customer service and culture at Zappos.  Particularly relevant to this subject, skip ahead to the slides in the 40’s, and especially slide 44, where he displays the 3 types of happiness:
  1. Rock star – chasing the next high
  2. Flow – engagement, time flies
  3. Meaning / Higher Purpose – being part of something bigger than yourself
The point is that having a larger purpose is a more sustainable form of happiness than chasing the next high.  In general when I talk to people about joining our team (or, in previous lives, my other organizations), I first made sure that there was cultural alignment about what matters to the employee and what matters to me, and what matters to our team.  If someone doesn’t already start out believing that customer success matters, I’m going to have an uphill battle teaching that to them, and it might be easier to let them figure that out on someone else’s dime.  If someone doesn’t get excited about building the best BPM shop in the world, or being part of a great team – it just isn’t a fit.  When someone is consistently focused on compensation trumping all other concerns, I generally recommend they either stay where they are or go contract, and accept that risk/reward proposition.  Or if they’re too focused on being paid “fairly” they may prefer a system like Fog Creek’s.  I would expect Contractors won’t get the psychological rewards of building up a company, but they can more easily maintain a laser focus on their own personal bottom line.  Just beware slide 44 from the Zappos presentation! Meanwhile, we’re going to get back to building a BPM business we can be proud of.