Balancing Money, Impact, Culture, and Enjoying Your Work

When I get a chance to be interviewed, many of these fine folks want to talk about this concept I’ve written about around the notion of whether or not we have a right to enjoy our work.

So let’s talk about the four things to carefully balance in this firm you are running, because I do not think you have a right to enjoy your work. Rather, it’s a byproduct of doing other things well.

You know that you want to make money, of course, but how important is it to make money in the larger scheme of things? Is it more important than anything else? That’s not more important, either.

Here are the concepts to balance, in no particular order:

  • Have an impact on your clients; i.e., do effective work.
  • Make money for yourself as the primary shareholder.
  • Enjoy your work.
  • Create a culture that complements what you care about and fosters what you are hoping to accomplish.

There’s an interplay among these four things, and every day you make decisions that prioritize one over the other, which is appropriate. Those priorities can change on a daily basis, too, but when you look at how they balance out over long periods of time, where do you start and what might you be aiming for? Let me suggest the order that might work best over the lifetime of a business, in descending order of importance:

  1. Make money.
  2. Do effective work.
  3. Build a strong culture.
  4. Enjoy your work

Let’s take a look at the suggested order first—and then I’ll land on what may strike you as a more reasonable outcome.

To make money is the purpose of an enterprise or business. Quarters or even years might go by without achieving that, but consistently making money is how it works. If you can’t figure out how to do that, go work for someone else. Employees will tire of the pressure and you won’t have any fun.

Fulfillment is what dangles from the three-legged tripod of money, impact, and culture. But chase enjoyment as the most important thing on the list, and the other three get out of whack quickly.

Very important—but slightly less important—is doing effective work for your clients. Your own standards for effectiveness will almost always be higher than theirs, anyway, so you can let this slip a little and it’ll still be good enough. You can’t really swap the order of the first two, either, because no one will listen to an expert unless they are expensive. It’s not the actual exchange of paying lots of cash that gives credence to your work; it’s the fact that you demand it because you follow your own advice. Maybe customers don’t have that in mind when they drive up to the dumpy houses with neon “Psychic” signs in the window, but real experts are in demand and they have achieved some minimum level of competence. Money is the currency of respect, and the customer of an expert treats the advice more seriously if it comes with a significant bill. So charge a lot for them or charge a lot for yourself, but whatever you do, charge a lot.

Having a strong culture is the right thing to do and we shouldn’t have to justify it, but even if that weren’t the case, it’s actually more difficult to build a sustainable enterprise that makes money and does effective work unless the entire team is on board, up to the task, and engaged with the work.

Enjoying your work is a wonderful thing but it is a byproduct of doing many other things right, and it’s dangerous to make it a demand. A lot of what it takes to build a strong entrepreneurial practice around expertise involves doing things that aren’t fun but just flat-out need to be done. Do them and quit complaining. If you love what you do, be grateful.

These four things, in the order I’m suggesting here, are not quite as they seem. An ethicist would call this exercise a false choice or a false dichotomy. What we should really be aiming for is balance. Many businesses are very effective and make a lot of money with an admirable culture in which people love what they do—so why should we have to choose?

The point is to help you see your priorities within the larger picture. Say that you have an employee who begins to behave badly. Essentially they slipped through the cracks and now they must be dismissed. The difficult thing, though, is that they are incredibly skilled and contribute more than their fair share to the effectiveness of your work for clients and what you can charge them!

But still, they don’t fit the culture and everyone knows it. The longer you wait to address it, the less of a leader you are and the hollower your pronouncements sound. Keep them around and contain the damage somehow and you’re more assured of meeting the twin goals of profit and impact.

At certain times, though, you must violate the other preferences for the good of the enterprise. Firing him will hurt profit and you’ll be left scrambling to fulfill your promises to the client, but it doesn’t matter. The right thing is obvious and must be done.

There’s going to be tension between the first (make money) and second (do effective work) mandates, too. There are countless instances where you could do very effective work for a client but not deliver profitability in the process. And so on.

So I think you’d be well served by trying to achieve these three goals all the time: profit, effectiveness, and culture. Any one of them could be trumped or put on pause for a greater good, but the big picture is comprised of consistently meeting those three goals.

And if you can enjoy your work building your business, you have a pretty ideal job and can tip your hat to the gods.

Can I get inside your head for a moment?

You think expertise is important because you’ve tasted competence and you never want to go back to the alternative. Whether it’s leading a small team in the boardroom or answering a tough question from the client CEO—these are places where you shine.

Having embarrassed yourself with no claim to expertise and having delivered confident, kind answers are two extremes that you will no longer choose between. You’d rather say no than pretend. You’d rather sleep in the streets with the answer than make sh1t up and then sleep in your comfortable bed.

The power of actionable insight is what drives you to never stop learning and to always find more interesting ways to slice through the clutter. You want to help people. You want to see the light come on in their eyes. You want to see them get excited about an answer that up to that point has been elusive. You want to help someone make small corrections now and understand how it will impact them later. You want to clear a mental path for people so that they can then navigate the maze on their own, aware of how their choices now will impact them in specific ways later.

That’s effectiveness.

And if you are solving those problems keeping them up at night, they’ll have no problem paying you comfortably for that expertise. They’ll even know that it took you 20 years to get to the point where you can diagnose and prescribe for their setting within 20 minutes. They’ll get that and still gladly pay as if it took you 20 hours to come up with the answer.

That’s money.

When word gets out, right-minded individuals who also love learning and want to be supported in their quest to help others will flock to your culture of learning and respect and achievement.

That’s culture.

And believe me, you will love what you do because competence and building something that matters is its own reward.

That’s fulfillment.

I leave you with this.

Fulfillment is what dangles from the three-legged tripod of money, impact, and culture. But chase enjoyment as the most important thing on the list, and the other three get out of whack quickly.

Doing the right things in the right order yields the right results.

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