As the pace of global technology continues to accelerate, competition in emerging micro-segments is becoming incredibly dense. Many of our modern enterprises are struggling to sustain a backlog of innovation projects necessary for the growth demanded by investors and public markets. These same companies are showing signs of a disconnect between executives and high-performance employees. This disconnect shows in the way we design cultures for performance and results in a difficulty retaining and incentivizing our critical employees.
Could it be that the key ingredient to retention, morale, productivity and sustainable innovation, is simply to cultivate the trade mastery potential of our high-performance employees (HPEs)?
Rather than being tasked with doing the most, high-performance employees (HPEs) are asked to solve the hardest problems in every company. They are the technicians, builders, designers, creatives, culture shapers, narrators and innovators.
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My latest survey data* shows that 76% of high-performance employees say trade mastery is more important than money when considering career decisions. (*Over 3,000 respondents. For more on how I define HPEs read here.)
Many companies lose touch with the concepts of truth in craft and trade mastery — vague concepts to be sure, yet somewhere deep in the mind of the HPE they hold vital importance.
Perhaps companies like Patagonia, BMW, Dow Chemical, Intel, Github, Gucci, The North Face, Nike, Apple, Google, Basecamp, NPM, and Amazon can serve as examples. These companies seem to have proven over time that their fundamental focus, either by directive or happenstance, has been to sustain the energy incubated by their founders — an energy focused on technical/creative purity before financial gain.
This focus on purity shows itself in high-performance people — reflected by their core principles, the way they think, their dedication to vocational values. Most importantly, the HPE focus on trade mastery greatly influences where they work and how long they stay.
Let's go deeper
My latest data shows that 76% of HPEs are not primarily motivated by money. But why?
The mysteries are hard to explain
It may sound strange, but let's first talk about the concept of karma. We can consider karma as the mysterious inertia of life's puzzle. Karma may be better explored by asking some simple questions:
- What explains to which parents we are born?
- To which city and country?
- Of which ethnicity?
- At which time we are born?
- Why were we not born as an oyster or a squirrel or a cactus?
- What explains our childhood temperament?
- What explains the unique and complex questions we seek answers to as we grow older?
Many times more expansive than should be pondered here, the concept of karma encircles the mysteries of life, generational inheritance, and much more. It's a mysterious concept that addresses the endless mysteries that surround us.
Do we find our core skills, or do skills find us?
Maybe we can think about trade skills and dedication to craft as a similar type of mystery. How do we choose our skills? The answer to this question is incredibly complex and if followed to its root, will begin to expose the fundamental questions of life itself.
- How can we explain the illustrator's life-long curiosity with form?
- How can we explain the woodworker's lust for fit, feel, shape and contrast?
- How can we explain the software engineer's endless exploration into worlds of code and logic?
- How can we explain the stylist's connection with trend?
- How can we explain the master sax player?
- How can we explain the mathematician?
- How can we explain the quantum physicist?
What of the folks who were born into a technical or creative family? Simple. But what about the question of why and how they were born into that family? It's so much more than a game of strategy and Life Building 101. I have no capacity to practically decode it without a simple-minded explanation based on linear thinking.
Perhaps a more compelling way to consider the HPE's connection with their vocational skill set would be that in most cases skills choose us, rather than we choose our skills.
Perhaps our intersection with trade skills manifests more like mountaineers drawn to the range, or surfers to the ocean. The Japanese have an interesting concept called Ikigai, likely translated as "a reason for being" or "a reason to get up in the morning." Surely our HPEs understand this inertia — a compulsion to start or finish each day solving interesting puzzles on the path to mastery.
It's so much more interesting than money
Let's circle back to our original data point: 76% of high-performance employees (HPEs) say trade mastery is more important than money when considering career decisions. The utility of money as a long-term motivator or a proxy for core understanding and empathy are limited — if not completely misdirected — because an HPE's connection to their trade resembles more a mysterious spiritual illumination and growing devotion than it does an evolution of practical decisions aimed in a concise direction.
And so … using our corporate, bureaucratic, linear and financial logic to understand, reward and empathise with HPEs is silly.
HPEs are so often on a mysterious quest to do their best work according to the truth and purity of their craft. This can result in earning great money. Yet how many of our rich HPEs consider money to be the endgame? I wonder how many of them look back later in life with fluffed and lined pockets, only to yearn for their past that focused primarily on the modesty of their principles.
If we can understand our HPE's dedication to craft and skill, and encourage the mastery of such talents by way of corporate culture and directive — then we will be more likely to really listen to our people while designing environments and process systems around them to maximize efficiency, retention, productivity and morale. In doing so, our companies can sustain innovation over long periods of time. Our products will be great. Our people will be happy. And if even for a short time, our work life might seem to make a bit more sense.
William Belk is a partner at Formula Partners. You can contact him on Twitter.