Producing great work or making things happen? Which motivates you?

July 26, 2023

Think back to the last time you felt really pleased* with your work. What caused you to be pleased? Did you produce some really good quality work – a design, a report, an ad campaign? Or did you make something happen – hit a target, win a new client? I don’t want to suggest that these things are mutually exclusive, but there is a fundamental difference. One is about outputs, the other about outcomes. The nature of you role will determine which one you focus on – and get measured on. If you’re a designer, you’ll be judged on the quality, and perhaps quantity, of your work. If you’re in sales, you’ll be measured on outcomes. But my sense is that this is also a matter of individual motivation and that people who are motivated by doing good work don’t always understand people who are motivated by making things happen and vice versa.

*If you’re struggling to think of anything, you may want to read these articles on imposter syndrome and dealing with your inner critic.

Two career paths

I’ve been mulling this since I gave a talk at a conference a few months ago for Women in Property – architects, engineers, property lawyers – about leadership in professional environments. I contrasted two fictitious friends:

  • Amy studied surveying at university then joined a prestigious firm of surveyors.
  • Beth did an English degree and then joined a graduate management training scheme for a large retail chain.

Amy and Beth will have different careers from day one and not just because they are in different sectors. Amy will be measured on her output and will be rewarded for accuracy and thoroughness. She will often face situations where there is a right answer (or a narrow range of possible answers) and she will need to use her professional expertise to work it out. Beth, by contrast, will be measured on her outcomes – revenue, staff turnover, complaint levels – and will face more situations where there is no right answer and she has to use her judgement and experience to decide on the best course of action.

A leadership disadvantage

When it comes to leadership, Amy is likely to be at a disadvantage. For starters, she might get promoted into a leadership role just because she’s the best surveyor, with all the many disadvantages that brings, such as getting too involved in others work. Conversely, she might find herself judged – or even actively undermined – by staff who expect her to be the best surveyor and claim she only got the job because she’s got the gift of the gab. She’ll also have to deal with more fuzzy, ambiguous issues with no right answer, which her training hasn’t equipped her for. None of this is intended to put people off leadership in professional environments, just to highlight some of the challenges.

The motivation bit

What I didn’t discuss much in my conference talk was motivation. A couple of weeks later I was assessing candidates for a Chief Operating Officer role in a logistics company (perhaps the ultimate ‘make things happen’ job) and a distinction really struck me. One of the candidates told me that, early in her career, she had gone to work for a shoe manufacturer, thinking the shoes would be glamourous. Instead she fell in love with logistics. Her eyes lit up as she described importing leather from India, sending it to a plant in Portugal and then shipping the finished product around the world. I could really see what a buzz she got from making things happen, from those early career experiences to later large scale business restructures. I got it – but I also thought, wow, I really wouldn’t have wanted your career.

I am, at heart, an Amy. I focus on output, whether that’s a report, a coaching session, a blog post or a presentation. My motivation can essentially be summed up as:

“Behold this wondrous thing I have created”

My aim here is to give some advice to other people who pride themselves on producing fabulous work, whether that’s expertly crafted tax advice, beautiful web designs or tailor-made suits.

1. Don’t get too precious

If your work requires intellectual skill, creativity or complex knowledge built up over years, it can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that what you do is the most important thing in the organisation. This is particularly the case if your output is what the business sells, e.g. an architect in an architecture practice. You’re the star, right? Everything else is just admin. Or worse, sales.

Very early in my career, when I thought being a computer programmer gave me some sort of special status, I recall discovering that a woman managing what we dismissively called ‘the user side’ of a system implementation, was a graduate. I was genuinely baffled that she’d wasted her potential on such a non-job. Where was the specialist skill, the expertise? I see now that I’d encountered a Beth and I trust she has gone on to have a stellar career making stuff happen. Don’t be like younger me. I meet too many operational managers and business developers in specialist environments who don’t get the status and appreciation they deserve. Nothing happens without them.

2. Stay commercial

When you focus on producing a wondrous thing, it can be tempting to spend too long polishing it until it is the shiniest, most perfect wondrous thing ever. This is great if you are an artisanal watchmaker who crafts eight watches a year and sells them for a fortune. But you probably aren’t one of those. If you work in professional services, you’ll realise pretty quickly that your billable hours are what counts and there are times when you need to be pragmatic.

As a self-employed person, I’ve had to train myself (not always successfully) to be interested in outcomes as well outputs and focus on targets as well as deadlines.

3. Think about what will motivate you in a leadership role

It’s a bit of a myth that to get promoted you have to stop doing the work you trained to do. Sometimes it’s true. When I became an IT project manager, I stopped doing anything technical. But a lot of the time it’s not. The people at the top of accountancy firms, architecture practices, psychology consultancies often still deliver client work. They are also supposed to lead those businesses. This is a situation where ‘absent leadership‘ thrives – that’s where you hold a leadership position but focus on your own work, leaving a vacuum.  I don’t think it’s just that the work is more interesting. It’s that you have to learn to be interested in making stuff happen, in outcomes for the firm, not just outputs for the client. If you don’t think you’ll ever be interested in that, maybe don’t take the job.

If any of that resonates with you, do get in touch:

Meanwhile, behold this wondrous blog post I have created…


Photo credit

Andrea Piacquadio


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