Meaning at Work

Leadership Excellence

July 7, 2015

by Alicia Bassuk and Marshall Goldsmith

With so many of us leading 24/7 work life, we’re searching for meaning in our work. Gone are the days of the 35- to 40-hour work week and the month-long yearly vacation. We’re tied to our jobs via technology all day, every day. Without a purpose for all this work, it loses its allure quickly, and even the best leaders burn out.

Increasingly, leaders are focusing beyond effectiveness, productivity, and compensation, and are striving to find more meaning in their work.

Historically, leaders sought opportunities in organizations that were stable, prestigious, and well-funded. They worked for one or two organizations before they retired. Today’s leaders change companies more frequently; in search not only of prestige and compensation, but also deeper meaning from their professional life.

Primary and Secondary Factors

Meaning in the workplace is derived from both primary and secondary factors. To some, meaning comes directly from the work they do. These are “primary meaning” factors. If the purpose of their work is to feed the hungry or to educate children, their need for meaning through work may be satisfied.

For others, the content of the work is less important in terms of meeting their quotient for meaning, and other “secondary meaning” work factors are more highly valued. They satisfy their meaning quotient in a multi-faceted way. Secondary work factors are becoming more common drivers for finding meaning through work.

Nine Secondary Meaning Factors

From our experience developing leaders, we’ve learned that nine secondary meaning factors are vital to recruit, retain, and develop leaders:

1. Philanthropy and community service. Sofia is the COO at a large bank. Her HR director introduced her to the chairman of a non-profit. Sofia is now on the board, and her employer makes contributions through its foundation. In her annual review, Sofia is credited with being a strong civic leader who represents the company well. She has organized her division to spend one day each quarter providing service with the non-profit. She requires her staff to engage in this service to receive the highest ranking.

Companies that act philanthropically through foundations or community service activities contribute to meaningful work. Many companies have paid community service time that is approved by managers. Guidelines for a minimum number of community service days encourage full participation and discourage managers from punishing their teams for missing work to spend the day helping the cause of their choice.

2. Healthy culture. Marco is an EVP at a technology company. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, Marco and his daughter ride their bikes to his work each morning. After he drops her off at the onsite daycare facility at 9:30 a.m., Marco walks to his office. On the way, he exchanges smiles and high-fives with his staff. After four hours of intense work, Marco spends his lunch hour at a company-sponsored meditation session.

More difficult to measure is the health of the culture and the extent to which the culture feels like it is a good fit. This is manifested in myriad ways: from openness in communication, to napping policies, to dress codes, onsite daycare, flex hours, and warm interactions. Companies that attend to these secondary contributions may offer health club use during lunch hours, meditation, executive coaching, and ping-pong tables to encourage play.

3. Ethical alignment. Jane is the CEO of a non-profit. She’s aware that the Chairman has made some decisions that are atypical in the non-profit world. Jane talks to several board members, including the Chairman. They schedule an emergency phone conference to openly discuss the ethical implications of the Chairmanââ‚â„¢s actions.

Leaders want to associate with organizations with which they are ethically aligned. Leaders can engage in healthy debate around sensitive ethical decisions. They may not be in agreement, but they have a shared understanding of ethics as central to their business practices.

4. Mentoring. Robert is the manager of a tool factory. Between meetings with distributors, Robert receives an email from a factory supervisor who has received a call from HR regarding an opportunity for promotion. Robert calls the supervisor and shares his perspective and helps the supervisor prepare for the meeting. After the meeting, the supervisor calls Robert to thank him for his support.

Mentoring is a major secondary meaning factor. When an executive has a connection with one or more senior managers who helps develop her or his skills and champion her or his success, the executive is more likely to develop meaningful relationships, feel more connected to the organization, and develop feelings of camaraderie and loyalty. In turn, the mentor feels that he or she is contributing to the success of another individual and derives secondary meaning.

5. Creativity. Michelle is a buyer at a retail firm. Along with all salaried employees, Michelle is required to spend 10 percent of her work week on innovation. She spends her innovation time with a programmer in the IT division; together they develop a new application for the website.

The ability to be creative at work also creates meaning. Employees are encouraged to collaborate across divisions, are given seed-funding to explore new product ideas, are given opportunities to experiment, and even supported in using a significant percent of their week towards innovation.

6. Big future vision. Daniel is the GM of a media company. He meets twice a week with experts in the media field to brainstorm ideas about the way that people will engage with media over the next 10 years.

Leaders want to be part of a big vision. Beyond growing a company or meeting goals, they want to improve the quality of life for other people, positively impact global relationships, create a new way for business to be conducted, and invent ways to influence the greater good. When strategy is aligned with a vision, it supports a culture in which employees want to do their part to achieve the big vision.

7. Multiple perspectives. Juliet is a partner at a private equity firm. In selecting the best candidates for funding, Juliet gains significant expertise in each field.

Leaders have access to more information, knowledge, and expertise and want to engage with multiple perspectives. This can be in the form of outside experts advising on key projects, collaboration with leaders in other fields, conferences in which leaders share their key lessons learned, joint publications, and assignment of multiple responsibilities over time.

8. Exposure to others. Alex is a Director at a hospitality firm. When he suggests a new location for a hotel, a team member who grew up there shares insights. The group investigates the new perspective first to understand it and then to integrate the data to apply it effectively to future projects.

Leaders are enriched by exposure to people with different backgrounds and lifestyles. There is a stimulation and fullness that comes with working with leaders who were raised and live in various communities and are active in different activities. True exposure makes for more vigorous debate and a more curious environment.

9. Public engagement. Isabella is the editor of a magazine. She is in the final stages of writing her second book. In the Q&A portion of her talk, a conference attendee asks a provocative question that pushes her ideas in a new direction.

Something extraordinary happens when a leader shares her ideas in a public forum and engages large groups. Inevitably a new idea comes from someone in the audience, and the idea can then grow organically. It is stimulating and rewarding, and generates energy for rigorous thinking.

Organizations that do not support leaders who value secondary meaning factors risk losing them and being unable to compete. In organizations that support meaningful work experiences, the culture enables more of them.

These secondary meaning factors selfperpetuate and attract and retain likeminded, meaning-seeking leaders. Companies that provide maximum secondary meaning factors foster cultures in which loyalty a tertiary meaning factor develops. Ultimately, finding meaning at work is a question of quality of life. Leaders realize that they spend their most productive waking hours at work, and that making those hours meaningful is crucial. LE

Alicia Bassuk is the author of Monday Morning Leadership Handbook. E-mail or visit Marshall Goldsmith is the co-founder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners. Visit

ACTION: Implement secondary meaning factors.