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23rd November 2017

My Dad has the worst job in the world

23rd October 2017 | Posted in How to be a Leader, Management, Organisational Development

It’s a couple of years ago now that I was sharing a beer in the evening sunshine with a leadership development group in Lisbon. One of the delegates, Jose, told a story of how his small son had returned from school one afternoon to find his father working from home. In response to the normal question about the quality of his school day, Jose’s son grew serious and described a conversation where they were asked to describe their parent’s work.

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‘Oh, and what did you say about my work?’ enquired Jose, fondly imagining his son’s pride at his father’s leadership role in a global technology firm.

‘I said you had the worst job in the world’, replied the earnest young man. ‘All you do is write emails all day and all night’.

Jose shared this story as an amusing one, but it has stayed with me since. Jose’s son went to school with the children of fishermen and construction workers, teachers and shop managers, all people who would have regarded Jose’s role as perfectly respectable, but in the eyes of an eight year old it was static, indoors and solitary.

You could argue that the eight year old simply didn’t understand Jose’s job. But you could equally argue that he understood it perfectly and it’s the rest of us who’ve lost touch with what might constitute enjoyable work. It’s bound to provoke a pause for thought for those whose working lives span geographies and time-zones and are channelled through Outlook and Web-Ex.

My incomplete answer is that a focus on the ‘what’ of work is less important than an interest in the ‘why’. However much I might cheerfully imagine my life as a wine maker or some other work that would more appeal to Jose’s little boy, the fact is that the core of me: my purpose, values, desires and hopes are fuelled and fulfilled by my career. Email, early mornings and late evenings are just some of the things I have to put up with to execute it. Wine-making or something else may come, but it’s in the future and I’ve not finished with the current yet.

The reason that answer is incomplete came in a conversation with some friends over dinner last week. Whisked by their ambitions and ability from travelling the world to work with people like Jose in person to working with teams scattered around the globe through their laptops, their perspective came from the position of coach turned practitioner. Their view is one that I share following a recent change in my own responsibilities: it’s a bit tough executing your working life without the team around you. It’s especially tough if, like the three of us, people and teams are your thing. The café working culture may suit those independents out there but the reason I choose to work inside an organisation is because of team. Incidental human contact or technology-enabled conversations are poor substitutes for the real thing when your achievement is through others.

I’ve written elsewhere that Leadership is a team sport. It’s a social activity that communications technology only facilitates in a transactional sense; the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. I guess I’ve just realised the obvious: working across the world may well have just as big an effect on the leaders as the teams they work with. My thinking only makes me determined to be less attached to the lap-top than I was before when I am physically surrounded by the people that work with me.

It won’t make Jose’s little boy any happier about what he sees but it might just give us something to say to explain it.

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