Caveat: I’m very hesitant to post this publicly. Please read it in the sense I’ve written it. I’m being vulnerable in the hope of opening up discussion on a topic which I can’t see people talking about, but which I think is probably important.
I’ve spent most of my software career as part of a product team. Whether I’ve been writing code (mostly), managing people (when needful, and more often lately), mentoring, or doing any of the many little side-roles which are needed to build a successful product, I’ve always been able to rely on the fact that everyone I’m working with has the same big-picture mission.
I’m not talking about “producing great software” here. I’m talking about the alignment between business, and product, and people – over the years it has ranged from “let people put a $2 coin into a kiosk and use the internet” to “produce weather forecasts to help mines make better decisions” to “provide better patient outcomes in hospitals”. That shared mission has always been fundamental to my own sense of purpose and motivation. It’s what makes me feel worthwhile as a person, and it helps me justify to myself the salary I get paid – I would hate to feel like I’m being paid money but not adding value!
A bit less than a year ago, I moved from product teams to consulting – and the rug has been pulled out from under my feet.
It probably doesn’t help that I’ve moved straight into a leadership role. I don’t have one client for weeks or months at a time – I have somewhere around 20 clients simultaneously, as well as leading a team of consultants and being part of the overall leadership of my state and my national group. My usual source of motivation – that shared mission – hasn’t just been diluted. It’s been shredded, processed, ground up, kneaded into dough, cooked, and handed back to me in a form I just don’t recognise.
I needed to find a new source of motivation.
I went looking online, and there’s not a lot out there. I read listicles about how to stay motivated as a consultant – “Exercise!” “Don’t sweat the small stuff!” “Take time to recharge!” “Just believe in yourself!”. I read (or mostly listened to) books about consulting, and they gave me all sorts of strategies – for being a better consultant. I just haven’t been able to find much (anything?) addressing my motivational problem.
I’ve had a string of successes, mostly great outcomes, and one or two things which haven’t gone well. I’ve watched the various strategies we’ve used to motivate people with lots of interest – hoping I’d find something to get my gears engaged. Positive call-outs, monetary rewards, team-building exercises. They’re good strategies. They make me feel good in the moment. It’s a great team – some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. That can be hard to deal with in itself, but I’ve mostly moved on from my imposter syndrome to something a little more complicated, so that’s OK.
None of these things has been a solid substitute for the fundamental sense of purpose I used to get from being part of a team with a mission. A mission beyond just “build great software” – that’s just a means to an end. A mission like “create better hospital outcomes for patients”. That was a good one.
I have clients with missions now. Some of them even believe in their own missions, and occasionally they’re missions I care about too. But I only get to care about my clients’ missions sometimes – and other times my mission is aligned with my own team (whose mission is somewhere between “build great software” and “keep the client happy”), and sometimes I’m worried about the broader group or consultancy. Sometimes I’m aligned with the sales team, and sometimes I’m opposed to them. Sometimes I’m focused on a client whose mission I disagree with. Success, then, means making the world a worse place (from my point of view).
The best advice I’ve found so far has been this: find a sense of pride in the quality of your work, and the reputation of your team. Good advice, I’m sure, and probably very fulfilling for some.
I haven’t had any luck decoupling the quality of my work from the outcomes and the team and the mission. Quality work is just another means to an end: accomplishing the mission.
I normally write blog posts because I feel like I’ve got some knowledge to share, but the more leadership I do, the more that I understand it’s not always about dishing out nuggets of wisdom from on high – it’s about facilitating discussions, and helping create understanding from our shared experiences. So here I am, ending a blog post with the same uncertainty that I started it with.
Please, reply here, or reply to this tweet. Whether you’re a consultant now, or you have been one in the past and struggled with the same thing, or you’re on a product team and get your motivation from another source. Whether you have an answer, or a different perspective, or just more questions – let’s talk about this topic. One of the biggest industries in my city is consulting, and I feel like this is a big topic which just isn’t talked about. Let’s start talking.