Remind me why I pay you?


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Somebody asked a question the other day that sparked a train of thought. Here it is: Why do you do your job? Why do you do what you do? Why do you work in local government, instead of window cleaning or investment banking?

For a lot of people, they do what they do because it pays the bills and looks likely to continue to do so. For others, they do what they do because they cannot imagine doing anything else. And at every level, there are people who do what they do because they are passionate about that role or task, and because they believe very strongly that it is important for them to continue.

Once upon a time, someone I know worked for a firm that held regular events for engineers to mingle with management in a sort of corporate show-and-tell. He called these “remind me why I pay you” days. Attendance was pretty much mandatory, and the technical people were expected to bring some sort of presentation to show what they were up to, and why it was important to the company. I don’t believe it was ever said out loud, but they all felt that a poor performance would jeopardise their future careers.

As an incentive there was a free lunch, which was always over-catered to such a degree that the engineers lived largely on expensive cheese for a week afterwards. They were a shallow bunch, on the whole, and anybody’s for a pound of Stilton. But they lived in fear of saying the wrong thing, giving the wrong impression, failing to represent themselves and their projects or skills as positively as possible. Not a happy situation to be in once a quarter, huh? At the same time, though, a useful training ground for developing confidence in yourself and your ideas.

So imagine that your most senior leader is looking you in the eye right now, asking why you feel you should continue to receive a salary. What do you say? *

As somebody whose job title and description is very nebulous indeed, I always have trouble with this question. If I worked at the front line I could argue for the service I provide directly to vulnerable people. If I was in a support service I might refer to making my colleagues’ working conditions better. But I am, effectively, a strategist and a jargonaut. My impact is rarely felt directly, and I don’t produce anything much except paperwork and charts. What is there for me to be passionate about? The world won’t stop turning if I don’t write a report. Nobody will starve if I make my bar chart green instead of blue, or turn it in 2 weeks after the deadline.

And yet … I am passionate about what I do. I know a lot of people like me who are just the same. We exist and we do what we do because somebody somewhere needs us to. What do we do? We do the right thing. We persuade others to do the right thing. We create systems and processes to help others to do the right thing. We nudge and we influence and we illustrate and we demystify and we nag and we plead. And we stand outside the operational issues, because the view is much better from here.

It’s funny that people like me would never be invited to Remind Me Why I Pay You days, but engineers (who produce actual tangible results) were. This was the private sector, where results really matter ** – poor product means unhappy customers means money lost. Yet for some reason the supporting roles (strategy, policy, change management) were and are accepted as essential.

So I think my point is … when the quality of the product is mission-critical, the quality of the producers comes under scrutiny but nobody questions the need for strategists.

* You can visualise the cheese board too, if it helps. Include celery if you really must.

** … where the only impact I ever need to consider is “am I taking a sale away from Competitor X?”

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About jargonaut

Unashamed geek lost in policy land. Frequently required to believe three impossible things before breakfast, and implement them by tea time.
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