“What do you do?” challenged the Chief Executive Officer. His tailor-made three-piece pinstripe suit and garish diamond cufflinks befitted a rapper, pimp, drug dealer, or executive who had just led his enterprise to record profits.
The exec’s appearance was jarringly incongruous with his recent stern-faced town hall proclamation that the industry was experiencing its toughest trading conditions in a generation, with difficult times ahead. His speech had concluded with a stern warning that permanent staff not be too disheartened by the size of their yet to be announced annual bonuses. They were lucky to still have jobs at all!
Across the table from the exec sat a young man. Confident. Lean. Fit. Sharply dressed. Sporting a beard worthy of a barista. An employee who had worked at the firm for several years. An underling with whom the exec had met and interacted on numerous occasions.
“I’m an agile coach” he proudly responded with a broad smile.
“I don’t care what your self-aggrandising job title is, I asked what do you do! What do you sell? What do you build? What would fall over or stop working if you weren’t here? What value do bring?”
The hirsute hipster paused for a second, not understanding the question.
“I help organisations and teams adopt more agile mindsets and working practices.”
The CEO gave a withering glare, thoroughly unimpressed.
“Do you deliver the projects?”
“Do you work on the projects?”
“Well, no …”
“So you talk about the work done by others. Encouraging them to abandon planning and strategy in favour of trial and error. Advising them to keep iterating in the hope that they will magically stumble across a viable outcome before the stakeholder’s patience or money runs out?”
“I woudn’t put it quite like that…” stammered the agile coach, confidence utterly shattered.
The CEO wasn’t listening, the peon written off as a valueless non-entity. Unworthy of his time.
His gaze had shifted to the next person at the conference table. A stern-faced lady with an unruly mop of red hair, coke bottle glasses, and absolutely no sense of humour. Serious. Terse. A brilliant mind.
“I am the head of the data integration.”
“So you take data we already have from one commercial system we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for, and move it to another commercial system we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for? That makes you a plumber. Do you build the pipes? Unclog them? Maintain them?”
“No.” she responded, matter of factly. Already seeing the direction the conversation was heading.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“Sometimes we move data we already have into in-house developed systems that we continue to pay millions of dollars for. Sometimes we bend, twist, polish, or enhance it along the way because we use those hundred thousand dollar systems incorrectly or because they solve a different problem to the one we actually have.”
“But you don’t build anything, personally?”
“Not any more. I was easily the best engineer in the team, so I was promoted away from the tools into a middle management role for which I had no prior experience and received no relevant training. Now I attend meetings and participate in the shell game hustle of ‘doing more with less’.”
The CEO stared at her for a moment. Unsure whether he was hearing scathing sarcasm or unvarnished truth. Possibly both.
Next in line was a smug thirty-something wearing expensive trainers and a vintage superhero t-shirt. Perfect hair. Carefully groomed eyebrows. Designer stubble.
“I’m a thought leader, influencer, and serial entrepreneur. Ex-Google. Ex-Facebook.”
Silence descended upon the room as everyone parsed that description for any form of substance. Finding none, their collective attention shifted to the CEO, like a crowd watching a tennis match.
“Is that really the best you can do? Define yourself based upon things you were, but are no longer?
Google obviously didn’t want you, they let you go.
If you had been successful at entrepreneurship you would have name-dropped the ventures you founded, or the successful exits you had achieved. But you didn’t. Because you haven’t.
Instead, you are a cliché. Wearing Allbirds and a ridiculous gilet. Parroting facile soundbites you have stolen, but don’t understand, from others in your social media bubble. Perhaps you have carved out a reputation as the smart guy in the cycling club or the visionary technologist amongst the Dads at your child’s school. People who don’t know any better. Thought leadership indeed!”
The smugness has fallen from the handsome face. Now he looked like he was about to cry.
The C-suite occupant’s brutal attention focused on the final person at the table. A self-important greying white guy with a receding hairline and middle-aged spread.
“I’m an Enterprise…”
“STOP!” bellowed the CEO. His hand slammed down on the table, making everyone jump and the target of his ire flinch. “I don’t want to hear your 30,000-foot ivory tower view of how businesses should operate if they had no legacy baggage. We live in the real world, not some rose-tinted utopia that only exists in your imagination.”
The older guy rocked back in his chair as though he had been slapped. His mouth opened and closed a few times as he struggled to find the words to object or justify his continued existence, without appearing to be rude or contradict the CEO’s strongly held beliefs.
The CEO stood and sighed. His body language radiating disappointment.
“You have all let yourselves down today.
None of you were able to describe what you bring to this organisation.
To articulate how your efforts align with the value chain.
How they are linked to the attracting, retaining, or servicing of our customers?
How they contribute to the bottom line or serve the interests of our shareholders?
Why your retention is in the best interests of the company?
Whether anyone would even notice if you were gone?
Nobody cares more about those answers than you do. You have a vested interest in that retention decision. Your livelihood. Your pension. Your health insurance. Your professional reputation. To pay your bills. To provide for your family.
After spending half an hour in this room with you, I’m still none the wiser as to what it is you do all day? What contribution you make to earn your salaries? Merely turning up is not a job. Filling your calendar with meetings and video conferences is not a job.
If you struggle to describe what you do that is worthwhile, when invited to do so by an attentive audience, then you are probably not doing anything worthwhile at all.
So I ask you again: What. Do. You. DO?”
The CEO paused for dramatic effect, then strode from the room. The other attendees glanced at one another. They had nothing.
A former colleague had recounted their retention interview over coffee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they now had considerably more free time on their hands, while they sought alternative employment. The job market remained buoyant, though no longer so frothy that hiring bonuses and eye-watering salaries bordering on the ridiculous were readily on offer.
We had caught up with another colleague, who was about to return to the workplace after a year of maternity leave. After having attended a couple of Keeping In Touch days at the office, she was seriously questioning whether she wanted to return to work at all, let alone return to the same industry, firm, team, and role.
In days gone by, she had been the workaholic rising superstar. Always available. Always hustling. Always saying yes. Parachuted into a succession of sought-after assignments, for which she had little relevant experience, sink or swim style. Each time she had frantically struggled initially, before ultimately conquering the challenge with commendable poise and finesse.
Her change in family circumstances had led to a re-evaluation of priorities and time investment decisions. Every hour spent working was now an hour spent away from her child. Every weekend squandered working was a foregone family outing or missed opportunity to make memories.
We spoke about the challenges of acclimatising young children to the new nursery attendance routine. Some kids thrive on the additional stimulation and opportunity to play with other children. Others struggle, unable to comprehend why their parents abandoned them to the care of strangers in unfamiliar surroundings, preferring to spend time “at work” rather than with them.
She recounted being taken aback by some of the artwork decorating the nursery walls. A recent classroom exercise where the teachers dictated each child’s response to questions asked about their families.
Question: “What job does Mum do?”
Answers: “Playing on the computer”. “Goes to the office”. “Shouts at people on the phone”. “Looks sad and fights with her boss”.
Question: “What does Mum do when she is at home?”
Answers: “Playing on the computer”. “Sleeps”. “Cries”. “Chores”.
Question: “What makes Mum happy?”
Answers: “Playing on the computer”. “Hiding from Daddy”. “Tequila”. “Hugs”
Her response had been instant and visceral. Thinking what horrible home environments these must be, with monstrous parents indelibly scarring their impressionable offspring through their choices and deeds.
Then she thought about it for a second or two. Realising what was described were unfiltered everyday vignettes from real life, when viewed through the eyes of a young child who lacked the understanding to put them in context. It was confronting. Easy to imagine her own daughter describing her home life in similar terms in just a few weeks’ time.
She wasn’t sure that was the life she wanted to return to. For herself or her family.
Where was the value in that? Who were the real stakeholders, whose interests needed looking after?
She had a vested interest in that outcome, just as our former colleague had in his troubling retention interview.
But she also had bills to pay. An unsatisfying equation. Recognition that sometimes the only available choices are bad ones.
The problem was she had now seen through the game.
Recognised that work was an enabler, not an end goal the way it had previously appeared. Her career was no longer a choice she would consciously choose to make, were it not for the money and lifestyle it provided.
She no longer wanted to rule the world. Just to have enough.
Enough money, with which to enjoy the world with her daughter.
Investing her time in pursuits that had real value. Not squandering it placating insecure bosses. Nor wasting it working on projects that were ill-conceived or doomed to failure. Nor playing silly games of office politics.
Feeling like she was standing on the edge of an abyss, her heartfelt plea to us both had been: “what do I do?”
I wish I had a good answer. I’m fifteen years further down the same road, but alas I am no closer to discovering the answer.