Knowing what you want in a job

In the two years since I left my last full-time organizational job (the two months in May and June of this year at a corporate comms job, I do not count), many, many people have told me that they are unhappy at their jobs. Very few people have told me that they are happy at their jobs. In fact, the happiest people I’ve met are people who have left their jobs, like me, and are trying something completely different, either for work or on a personal level, or both.

I am doing something that sounds radically different than what I was doing before, although it kind of isn’t. After years and years of being a “communications professional,” I decided to call myself a “writer,” even though I know how to do a half-dozen other things in the communications world besides write. It felt so much simpler, and it has brought me better projects and clients than my consulting 1.0 phase did, I’m not exactly sure why. The work seems more straightforward and easier to scope; I always know what my end deliverable is, which is a piece of writing. Plus, everyone seems to need a writer, these days. Even though practically every job description I have ever seen in communications specifies “excellent” or “superb” writing skills as a requirement, apparently the jobs themselves are waaaayy too busy to allow the person in the role to actually, you know, write.

Despite this pared-down appellation on my LinkedIn profile, I still get recruited occasionally for communications executive jobs. I admit I find some of these offers tempting, because I care about ambitious social challenges, and believe I have the communications experience and strategic skills to significantly contribute to a big, audacious endeavor. Plus, I like working with people. I find the solitude of working from home to be both wonderful and lonely. (I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do when my second child goes to college next year and I think my husband and my dog should be worried about the increased demands I will place on them for affection and companionship.)

However, the biggest factor preventing me from pursuing any of these opportunities?  I know what I want in a job. I say this because so many people, when they’re thinking about leaving a job, get asked this question: “Do you know what you want in your next job?” Or, they get told to “figure out what you want in your next job.” And for me, and I suspect for many other people, that’s the wrong question. It’s not that we don’t know what we want, or we somehow need to figure that out. It’s that we can’t find a job that offers what we want, so we need to figure out whether to settle, or keep pursuing alternative work lives, like I’m doing now.

Here is my list for what I would want in a full-time organization-based job:

  • A great CEO/ED/President, who is respected and admired and yes, even loved by the majority of the staff. Because to me, the leader at the top is everything—they set the tone and example for everything the organization does and says.
  • An organization that is working on a mission I care about, with purpose and deliberation, where the mission is not shoved aside or tokenized in favor of the bottom line or in the appeasement of too many stakeholders.
  • An organization that invests equally in internal and external communications
  • A place where people are attentive and thoughtful about the ongoing work and conversation that needs to happen on diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • An organization that not only commits to explicit organizational values, but tracks how those values are being realized through staff behaviors and the work of the organization.
  • A culture and a set of systems that promote strong performance and staff development, with honest feedback and rewards and recognition structured accordingly.
  • An organization with strong infrastructure (IT, Board, decision-making processes, org charts and roles that make sense) and work environments designed for periods of solitude, collaboration, work, and occasionally, play
  • An organization that goes well beyond paying lip service to sponsoring and endorsing things that help employees maintain work-life balance
  • Colleagues who love to laugh and eat good food

Okay, that last one might be an unreasonable wish. Hell, maybe the entire list is unreasonable? I don’t know. All I know is, these are the things I want from a job. And I do not expect all of these things to exist together, in some ideal state of totality; in fact, I’d be fine if the organization was at least making a decent, tangible effort at some of these things, and that the leadership team was honest about which ones they felt really good about, and which ones they needed to spend a little more time on.

What are the barriers to finding my wish list fulfilled, or even partially fulfilled, in a job opportunity? For one thing, the job search process itself can mask whether these qualities exist in your future work environment. You can ask questions about these things in a job interview and you may get some degree of honesty from your interviewers about the state of how things are—I certainly did, in previous job application experiences. But I also got a lot of fudging and dishonesty, some of it brought about by my own eagerness to land the job. (Potential employer: “We have, uh, a lot of work to do on internal communications.” Me, chirpily: “I see that as a great opportunity to apply my skills and I’d be so excited to dig in!”)

And for another thing, I just haven’t encountered that many organizations that ARE doing a good job with the things on my list. Every once in a while, someone in my LinkedIn network will post an article on a really cool organization that has seemingly adopted a humane and creative approach to work, to work environments, to creating inclusive and open places. And I scan these articles eagerly, looking for signs of work fulfillment that goes well beyond free breakfast and snacks.

You know how in the celebrity culture world, famous people who have been married multiple times will give interviews and say, wistfully, “I still believe in love?” That’s how I feel about work. I still believe in work. I still believe that organizations exist out there that could potentially offer me so many of the things on my list. But I also know that over time, and with viable sources of fulfillment (and income) to be found elsewhere, I may put less and less effort into the finding of those organizations. However, don’t confuse that with me not knowing what I would want out of a job. I DO know what I want, and I bet many of you do, too.