We all want a job and work we love, but how do we find that?

We’d suggest stop looking at the brand – the heavily curated million-dollar wallpaper of the EVP – and start looking at the work and the people who do it alongside you.

In a world where most big companies spend millions of dollars elevating their employer branding every year, conjuring up to Nirvana-like possibilities wallpapered into a perfect facade, it is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of ‘I work for XYZ’ as a description of your work, rather than what really matters. In the eternal words of Fred Hertzberg’s fabulous 1968 article “One more time, it’s all about the work”. And if I could be a little bold, I’d suggest adding a little 2020 update to that quote – “It’s all about the work AND the people you get to work with”.

A personal story

For my generation, I have built a strange career and working life. I started as a ‘trainee’ in one of the country’s biggest and most prestigious companies. At 27, they offered me a window into my ‘career at 40’ – it was lovely. My reaction? I ran for the hills (at 27, 40 feels an eternity away). More correctly, I ran for another role in another big company.

At my new giant company, I did some more good work and met more good leaders, and can relay the odd cautionary tale of poor leadership. I looked at my work and decided what I loved and wanted to do more of. I also decided on what new work I wanted to learn and do. Finally, I decided where I wanted to live and be. I wrote my first job description and sent it to my company’s headquarters in Europe. We moved to Europe six weeks later.

There are many more chapters to that story, but the big lesson was that I found a string of opportunities to do work I loved, and I strung them together in a career I’ve loved just as much. Along the way, I’ve met many awesome people, and colleagues all over the world became friends.

Was every chapter, perfect? Nope. But most were. Was every leader great? Nope, but most were. Was every company great? Nope but they were good to be part of. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t change a thing.

In the meantime, I had many friends hang in there with that original employer. They rolled with the excitement of possibility and the lows of disappointment. What I noticed is that they came to talk about the ‘company’ as a real living thing.

Attributing personal attributes to a brand.

For an outsider, when a person talks about their company as a person, it rings all sorts of alarm bells for me. I’ve seen those big companies build the most perfect EVPs, and espouse a level of perfection to the outside world that no person I’ve ever met could live up to. Plastering values on the walls and scattering them on mouse-mats, they line up for award after award for being the ‘best’ at that branding work.

But what are they really?

By virtue of what we do, we do get in under the skin of really great companies. There is absolutely such a thing as a good company – really good companies – but there’s no such thing as a perfect company.

Perfect EVP? Perfect brand? It’s not a unicorn. It’s a fallacy.

What is a great company?

If you want to find a great place to work and contribute, first get really clear on what is a great company. It is a collection of awesome people – usually including a great leader or two – doing great work together that makes a difference. Nothing more and nothing less.

And that’s not only how you judge which one to join, it’s also how you judge when to leave. You have to stare into the very soul of your company and say “are we still a really great company – awesome people doing great work together and making a difference– or are we not so much anymore?”.

The Cautionary Tale

When you love the work you do, and you love the idea of everyone loving their work, the saddest thing you ever see is a person who defends a company that is no longer great, or more correctly, no longer great for them.

One example is that person that has been treated so badly by their company, and their leader, but just can’t leave. Broken and hurt, they stay and inexplicably become the loudest ambassador for the social responsibility of the company, even though they’ve experienced first-hand how thin that veneer of inclusion is.

Another example is the person that stays long after every promised promotion has passed them by. Long conversations and feedback about their lack of worth have eaten their soul, their confidence, and their self-belief that their deserved appreciation will ever arrive.

The final example is a person who joined ten years ago and has spent a decade of their life giving it their very best. Somewhere in that timeframe, things changed. Less awesomeness in the people, doing less awesome work together. There are one too many examples of polluting a river, defending an indefensible bullying claim, killing an ocean reef, covering up harassment, or not respecting land-owners as the company blasts the ground apart. Whether it’s one big decision that takes the knees out from under you, or a gradual loading up of indefensible actions that you hope no one raises at the family BBQ, sooner or later you have to admit that your values are no longer aligned. You need to let go, and that’s OK.

What not to look for

Expecting the big blue/yellow/purple/red diamond/triangle/letter to treat you well or ‘look after you’ is misplaced loyalty. They’re just an inanimate diamond/triangle/letter with no particular regard for you or anyone else. Let that pareidolia go. They’re not human or loveable.

Don’t fall too deeply in love with them, and certainly don’t rely on them to love you back. Loving inanimate non-living things is a recipe for disappointment.

The loveable things inside the big companies are you and your colleagues.

Finding purpose. Doing stuff that matters. Making a difference.

What to look for?

Look for great people. A great CEO. Great leaders. Great colleagues.

People that inspire you, grow you, create a space for you (and those around you) to thrive.

Look for work you love. Great work to do. People that care about that work and how it turns out. People who know how to appreciate it. People who rely on you to give your best.

Fall in love with the work, not the brand. Look at the people. Are they – right now – your sort of people?

Do work you love with people you love.

And if that brand – and all its millions of dollars of wallpaper, mouse-mats and PR-edged articles – lets you down, or lets your colleagues down, or lets the planet down, take your best work and find it a new home.

And maybe take the other ‘best people’ with you.