Throughout his life, my father was a teacher, even though he didn’t spend all his years in the classroom. High school and university students, business people, social workers and children in foster care all benefited in one way or another from his knowledge of physics, mathematics, human resources and guidance counselling. In the last ten years of his life, even when dementia robbed him of most of his cognitive abilities, he was teaching his family, friends and caregivers, about the value of human life and the importance of living in the present moment. I am convinced that teaching was my father’s dharma.
In his book, The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope explores the meaning of dharma – each person’s unique calling and life’s purpose.
Knowing your dharma makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning, eager to get to work, which, when done well, makes you sleep comfortably at night.
Just like my father, we can all live up to our dharma in different ways and through various stages of our career and life.
Cope’s book got me thinking about my own dharma – as a leader, I help people and organizations to be better and do better. The book also made me reflect on the ways in which leaders can help or hinder people to fulfill their dharma.
People do their best when their work is valued and they feel personally fulfilled doing it. Leaders are challenged to ensure that they have the right people in the right positions doing the right work. That’s why I believe that hiring, promoting and retaining talented employees are critical points at which leaders can help or hinder their employees find and fulfill their dharma.
- Hiring – Motivation is the qualification
Early in my career, one of my colleagues was hired to provide marketing support to the sales team. As it turned out, she found it difficult to work with sales people. She did her best work when she was sorting out administrative issues and working on client service protocols. Frustrated with her working relationships, she confided that helping sales people close sales was not her ‘thing.’ She was motivated by the deep-seated belief that outstanding customer experience determines long-term business success. By listening to her deep-seated convictions and motivations, we both agreed that serving customers exceptionally well was her dharma.
I haven’t forgotten that conversation. Whenever I am hiring, I always ask questions to find out the candidate’s personal convictions and motivations. In this way, it is possible to validate the alignment of their values and work ethic with those of the organization.
- Promotion – Expanded responsibilities should not be a reward for past success
The Peter Principle states that some managers rise to the level of their incompetence and stop being promoted. This happens when the promotion is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on their ability to fulfill the requirements of the role to which they are being promoted. There are many ways in which leaders can help to prepare their people for promotion and professional advancement – additional training, job rotations that expand employees’ skill set, encouraging innovative thinking and action, to name a few.
Not all high-performing employees want to be promoted.
This possibly explains why some top sales people, when promoted to people leadership and management positions, ask to return to a sales role. They will tell you that selling is what excites them – not managing people and writing reports.
Nothing is wrong with not wanting to be promoted, provided that the employee continues to be engaged, is productive and contributes to the mission of the organization.
- Retention – There can be a downside to investing in talent retention
In their zeal to retain talent, employers can be blinded by the brilliance of a technically proficient employee, but who is not suited for leadership roles in the organization. For example, an employee may function best as an internal consultant, not as a people manager. What usually happens is that competent employees feel pressured by the organization’s leadership to stay within the organization by climbing the corporate ladder. On the other hand, the organization’s leadership feels that providing an upward career path is the best way to retain exceptionally talented employees.
I recently spoke with a former colleague who made the decision to step off the corporate ladder in one organization where she could have had progressively more high-profile positions. The stress, corporate politics and added responsibilities were not supporting her deep need to fulfill her dharma. As a professional writer, she does her best work when she is creating compelling communications material. She found employment at another organization where she feels that the opportunity to do her best work, not the money or status, is what counts. Her courageous choice to make this change is benefiting her as well as the organization where she now works. She is happy and feeling valued. The organization is happy to have found and retained her talent. A win-win situation!
Holistic people management
Every leader wants to have the right people work with them to ensure that the organization’s goals are met. Hiring, promoting and retaining talent is challenging, but can be best achieved when leaders take a holistic view of people management.
Understanding the motivations and aspirations of potential and current employees should be an on-going process.
Encouraging employees to be purpose-driven in their efforts and allowing them to define and work towards their aspirations will enable them to fulfill their dharma. When this happens, the organization, and its employees benefit from the alignment of a shared mission and vision of success.
What is YOUR dharma?