Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Job sculpting: The art of retaining your best people

12/21/1999
Are employees who excel at at their jobs likely to be happy in what they do? Not necessarily, say noted career experts Timothy Butler and James Waldroop. The real keys to job satisfaction are neither skills nor values, but "deeply embedded life interests." In this excerpt from their article in the Harvard Business Review, Butler and Waldroop tell how managers should understand the psychology of job satsifaction if they want to keep their best people on board.
(For an application of Butler's and Waldroop's ideas in career self-assessment, see their online tool CareerLeader.)

Job Sculpting

Hiring good people is tough, but as every senior executive knows, keeping them can be even tougher. Indeed, most executives can tell a story or two about a talented professional who joined their company to great fanfare, added enormous value for a couple of years, and then departed unexpectedly. Usually such exits are written off. "She got an offer she couldn't refuse," you hear, or, "No one stays with one company for very long these days."

Our research over the past 12 years strongly suggests that quite another dynamic is frequently at work. Many talented professionals leave their organizations because senior managers don't understand the psychology of work satisfaction; they assume that people who excel at their work are necessarily happy in their jobs. Sounds logical enough. But the fact is, strong skills don't always reflect or lead to job satisfaction. Many professionals, particularly the leagues of 20- and 30-somethings streaming out of today's MBA programs, are so well educated and achievement oriented that they could succeed in virtually any job. But will they stay?

The answer is, only if the job matches their deeply embedded life interests. These interests are not hobbies — opera, skiing, and so forth — nor are they topical enthusiasms, such as Chinese history, the stock market, or oceanography. Instead, deeply embedded life interests are long-held, emotionally driven passions, intricately entwined with personality and thus born of an indeterminate mix of nature and nurture. Deeply embedded life interests do not determine what people are good at — they drive what kinds of activities make them happy. At work, that happiness often translates into commitment. It keeps people engaged, and it keeps them from quitting.

In our research, we found only eight deeply embedded life interests for people drawn to business careers. [See the sidebar, "CareerLeader and the Business Career Interest Inventory," for more on the eight life interests and their application in self-assessment]. Life interests start showing themselves in childhood and remain relatively stable throughout our lives, even though they may manifest themselves in different ways at different times. For instance, a child with a nascent deeply embedded life interest in creative production — a love for inventing or starting things, or both — may be drawn to writing stories and plays. As a teenager, the life interest might express itself in a hobby of devising mechanical gadgets or an extracurricular pursuit of starting a high school sports or literary magazine. As an adult, the creative-production life interest might bubble up as a drive to be an entrepreneur or a design engineer. It might even show itself as a love for stories again — pushing the person toward a career in, say, producing movies.

Think of a deeply embedded life interest as a geothermal pool of superheated water. It will rise to the surface in one place as a hot spring and in another as a geyser. But beneath the surface — at the core of the individual — the pool is constantly bubbling. Deeply embedded life interests always seem to find expression, even if a person has to change jobs — or careers — for that to happen.

Job sculpting is the art of matching people to jobs that allow their deeply embedded life interests to be expressed. It is the art of forging a customized career path in order to increase the chance of retaining talented people. Make no mistake — job sculpting is challenging; it requires managers to play both detective and psychologist. The reason: many people have only a dim awareness of their own deeply embedded life interests. They may have spent their lives fulfilling other people's expectations of them, or they may have followed the most common career advice: "Do what you're good at." For example, we know of a woman who, on the basis of her skill at chemistry in college, was urged to become a doctor. She complied and achieved great success as a neurologist, but at age 42 she finally quit to open a nursery school. She loved children, demonstrating a deeply embedded life interest in counseling and mentoring. And more important, as it turned out, she was also driven by a life interest in enterprise control, the desire to be in charge of an organization's overall operations. It was a long time before she stopped remarking, "All those years wasted."

Other people don't know their own deeply embedded life interests because they have taken the path of least resistance: "Well, my dad was a lawyer." Or they've simply been unaware of many career choices at critical points in their lives. Most college seniors and new MBAs set sail on their careers knowing very little about all the possible islands in the sea. And finally, some people end up in the wrong jobs because they have chosen, for reasons good and bad, to follow the siren songs of financial reward or prestige. Regardless of the reason, the fact is that a good number of people, at least up until midlife, don't actually know what kind of work will make them happy. (For more on the importance of life interests, abilities, and values in job satisfaction, see "It's a Matter of Degree.")

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Excerpted from the article "Job Sculpting: The Art of Retaining Your Best People" in the Harvard Business Review, September/October 1999.

[ Order the full article ]

Timothy Butler and James Waldroop both psychologists, are the directors of MBA career development programs at Harvard Business School in Boston. They are also principals at Peregrine Partners, a consulting firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. They are the authors of Discovering Your Career in Business (Addison-Wesley, 1997) and "The Executive as Coach" (Harvard Business Review, November-December 1996).

<I>CareerLeader</I> and the Business Career Interest Inventory

The eight life interests identified by Timothy Butler and James Waldroop as a key tool for managers to retain their best employees can be equally valuable for employees themselves. Codified as the Business Career Interest Inventory (BCII), these interests lie at the core of the online business career self-assessment program Butler and Waldroop call CareerLeader.

The BCII model distinguishes itself from other career interest models in that it is activity-based, rather than based on general interest patterns. It's founded on the notion that interests, not skills, should be the foundation of peoples' careers. The BCII provides a measure of interest patterns as they apply to business work roles and work environments in the following core function areas:

- Application of Technology measures interests that are often associated with engineering, production, operations, and the general use of technology to accomplish business objectives
- Quantitative Analysis
measures interests that are realized through problem-solving that relies on mathematical analysis
- Theory Development and Conceptual Thinking
measures interests involving broadly conceptual approaches to business problems
- Creative Production
measures interests that are realized through highly creative activities such as the development of new products or marketing concepts, the gernation of new business ideas, etc.
- Counseling and Mentoring
measures interests that involve developing relationships as a crucial part of business work, such as coaching, training and mentoring
- Managing People and Relationships
measures interests that involve developing relationships as a crucial part of business work, such as coaching, training and mentoring
- Enterprise Control
measures interests that are realized through having ultimate decision-making authority for complete operations
- Influence Through Language and Ideas
measures interest in exercising influence through the skillful use of written and spoken language

For more on the BCII and its application, visit the CareerLeader Web site.

It's a Matter of Degree

Over the past several decades, countless studies have been conducted to discover what makes people happy at work. The research almost always focuses on three variables: ability, values, and life interests. In this article, we argue that life interests are paramount — but what of the other two? Don't they matter? The answer is yes, but less so.

Ability — meaning the skills, experience, and knowledge a person brings to the job — can make an employee feel competent. That's important; after all, research has shown that a feeling of incompetence hinders creativity, not to mention productivity. But although competence can certainly help a person get hired, its effect is generally short lived. People who are good at their jobs aren't necessarily engaged by them.

In the context of career satisfaction, values refer to the rewards people seek. Some people value money, others want intellectual challenge, and still others desire prestige or a comfortable lifestyle. People with the same abilities and life interests may pursue different careers based on their values. Take three people who excel at and love quantitative analysis. One might pursue a career as a professor of finance for the intellectual challenge. Another might go straight to Wall Street to reap the financial rewards. And a third might pursue whatever job track leads to the CEO's office — driven by a desire for power and influence.

Like ability, values matter. In fact, people rarely take jobs that don't match their values. A person who hates to travel would not jump at an offer from a management consulting firm. Someone who values financial security won't chase a career as an independent contractor. But people can be drawn into going down career paths because they have the ability and like the rewards — even though they're not interested in the work. After a short period of success, they become disenchanted, lose interest, and either quit or just work less productively.

That's why we have concluded that life interests are the most important of the three variables of career satisfaction. You can be good at a job — indeed, you generally need to be and you can like the rewards you receive from it. But only life interests will keep most people happy and fulfilled over the long term. And that's the key to retention.

—Timothy Butler and James Waldroop