When you have spent two — or three — decades in your career, the adrenaline-fueled excitement of doing the thing you studied for, getting a raise that alters your standard of living, or leading a team of smart and capable people may have worn off. It’s easy to forget how much energy you put into getting here and to let the difficult meetings, failed projects, or challenging economic blips take the joy out of your work. That’s why it’s important to have strategies in your pocket that help you find meaning in what you do and to remind you why you are doing it, even when you would rather not.
“I spend as much waking energy and time at work than with my own family,” says Cam Ahler, vice president of IT for customer, commerce, and cloud at Bridgestone Americas. “It’s important to me that I’m providing some sort of impact.”
You might not find meaning in the same place another person does, though, says Len Covello, CTO of Engage People. “Meaning is such a personal thing for each individual,” he says. “For some people, it’s about working hard and delivering things for other people. For others, it’s about enabling people to do great work.”
Knowing where other CIOs and tech leads have found meaning might help guide your search.
Make something meaningful
One thing many CIOs, a few decades into their work, told me is that working for a company that does something meaningful has become so important as to be a major factor in their job choices.
“The purpose of the company you work for has to align to something you believe in,” says Lesley Salmon, CIO at Kellogg. “At Kellogg, we feed people. So the systems I create help us get food to our customers.” Knowing she is working toward that mission helps her — and her team — get through rough patches, disappointments, and challenges. “Maybe you’ve got a tough meeting, a production issue, or a boring project,” she says. “We often say to each other, ‘We feed people. That’s why we do this.’ It feels nice.”
Toshiba Vice President and General Manager Louis Ormond has no problem finding meaning in his work. “We create solutions that help our customers solve problems,” he says. “We love technology. More than that, though, we love seeing how technology can solve problems. That’s really the core of engineering: Taking a problem others may not see as solvable and using technology and scientific methods to solve it. It really is a dream job.”
Find a mission in your role
Ramya Ravichandar, vice president of product management and sustainability at JLL Technologies, feels privileged when it comes to finding meaning in her work because it’s at the center of what she does at the company.
“My work is directly related to sustainability,” she explains. “I help figure out how to use technology to further our sustainability goals, both internally and externally. Can you be more mission-driven than that?”
She believes that every tech company can bring this meaning, this mission, to whatever their product goals are. “It’s not somebody else’s job to fix climate crisis,” she says. “It’s staring at us, no matter where you live.” Whatever your company’s product or mission is, it is possible to also work toward repairing the damage done to the climate. “Stripe has Stripe Climate,” she says. “An initiative where they want every company using Stripe to contribute to carbon removal. Microsoft wants to go ‘net zero’ by 2030.”
And while your company is directing resources and people’s attention toward fixing this looming crisis, it will also be creating roles, side roles, and meaning for you and for people who work for you.
Identify the meaning that’s already there
If the meaning in your work isn’t as obvious as solving problems, feeding people, or fixing our broken planet, you might have to look a little deeper. But that’s true, even when you can find meaning in the company’s mission. Tapping the strength it can give you — to work through dark days and difficult challenges — is a mindset.
“I embrace technology,” says Salmon. “But my personal purpose is not about making the best technology. My purpose is to help people reach their potential.”
This sounds like something that would require enormous effort. But it can, she says, take only one minute out of a day. It’s a matter of focusing on people, seeing what they do well, and helping them see it, too. When done by a leader, this simple attention can have enormous outcomes on someone’s life. Watching that unfold can bring gratification to yours.
“I was a couple of weeks into my job at a previous company,” she explains. “One of my peers told me that someone on my team was a complete waste of space.” She saw something unique in that person, though. He seemed to care about customer’s problems. “I told him that I appreciated the way he spoke to customers, the interest he showed,” says Salmon. He told her that no one had ever spoken to him like that before and it helped him see this personality trait as a strength and to value it. One year later, he won the Heart of the Company award.
Volunteer your skills to better the world
“We all empty our buckets with day-to-day work and normal professional activities,” says Bridgestone Americas’ Ahler. “But if I have the opportunity to do something that serves our community, that fills my bucket back up.”
If taking time to speak to school groups, volunteer, or rally your own time or company resources to further a noble cause feels like something you don’t have time for, it is often enough, as a leader, to help others throw energy at causes they are passionate about.
“Rallying and supporting people here to be their best authentic selves is sometimes all I can do. I’ve got teammates who are passionate about certain causes,” says Ahler, who doesn’t have to find a cause, organize an initiative, and help them get involved. “I only need to create space for them to support causes that are important to them in order to make their work something that allows them to flourish.” This doesn’t take much of his time, but it gives meaning to their work and to his.
Address the diversity gap
Sometimes the cause you need to rally around, though, is right in your wheelhouse. The decisions you make about who is on your team and how much of themselves they can bring to work can change their world, the outside world, and the life experience of many people.
“Doing your part as a leader to address the diversity gap is huge,” says Salmon. “Sure, the quickest way to drive consensus is to have people who are similar to you. If your team is diverse, you will disagree more. But you will get to a better solution and diversity of thought is the right thing for your business.”
Doing this is complicated and challenging but brings enormous meaning to the workplace. Facing unconscious bias is a great place to start. To do this at Kellogg, Salmon set up a program to help people understand diverse points of view. “We started with a very visible event, bringing in the perspective of an African American group when the George Floyd situation was going on,” she says. “We started with some factual education sessions. Gradually I started to get emails from my team saying, ‘I’ve got a story I’d like to tell around diversity.’”
She made space for people to tell their stories and that’s when the door opened.
“We heard a transgender female tell her story to raise awareness and educate on Transgender Day of Visibility. We had foster-carers talk about the rewards, trials, and tribulations of that tough but rewarding role. A colleague who grew up in foster care also came forward to tell her inspirational story. We are creating psychological safety for everyone by educating all of us with these personal diversity stories,” she says.
Become a coach
Another place to look for meaning is by helping other people work toward the level of success you have found, even if their path is, ultimately, different from yours.
“The long-term coaching that we do as leaders for our team is very meaningful,” says Claire Rutkowksi, senior vice president and CIO at Bentley Systems. “Sometimes people know what they want to do but they don’t have the opportunity to do it.” Helping people find their path creates meaning — and success for them — but it also brings great rewards to you.
“I had someone on my team who wasn’t sure if he wanted to get into project management, so I said, ‘Well, let’s just try it. Do your job half time and do project management half the time. If you hate it, you’ll know you don’t want to do it.’” That person ended up loving it and changing course to go into project management. Rutkowksi found her role in that life choice rewarding.
“I feel like I made a difference, had an impact,” she says. “Maybe I didn’t help society at large but for that individual person, I made a difference. That is very meaningful. And it is gratifying when people come back and tell you what a difference it made and what meaning it had for them.”
Finding meaning in your work, according to Colleen Tartow, director of engineering at Starburst Data, involves understanding your place in the larger technology community and helping to grow it in a direction that is motivating and inspiring to you. “Speaking publicly at conferences or meetups, as well as writing articles or white papers about my work and the challenges facing my industry, has helped me feel more connected to the business goals and more motivated by the work I’m doing,” she says.
Sometimes just stepping back into a world where people are aspiring to the position you are in can show you that there is already meaning in what you do.
Do a postmortem
“Nothing ever goes perfectly or according to plan,” says Ormond. “That’s where struggles arise.” But there are lessons, and meaning, to be found in both the projects that go well and those that don’t. The trick is to stop and learn the lessons that the successes and failures can teach you if you listen.
“At the end of a project, we do a post-project review,” he says. The goal is to make learning lessons from mistakes — and successes — an integral part of the process. This moment where people stop to talk about what happened and what they learned along the way is not only a good practice for your future projects, but it helps you find the meaning in what you do. “It allows people to do the emotional healing that has to take place to get over the struggles. It’s a good mechanism for learning from your mistakes — and from what went right — and allows the team to either heal or rejoice, depending on the circumstance,” says Ormond.
“When you are helping others, it’s fulfilling for yourself as well,” says Engage People’s Covello. “I think helping others, for me, brings a lot of meaning. I see myself as the servant leader of a very proficient team. So, a big part of my job is enabling them. It’s fulfilling to see them be successful.”
That help can be the day-to-day stuff of helping someone get unblocked or find a solution. Or it can be larger. It can be helping someone to see themselves as proficient, successful, and — eventually — a leader.
“Somebody once said to me that you’re not a leader until you’ve created a leader who can create a leader,” Salmon says. “That was a turning point for me.”
Creating your replacement, growing people who can lead other IT teams, and building the leadership team of the future, is — many people told me — a great source of meaning for anyone in the role of CIO.
“Many of my IT managers have told me directly they want to be a CIO one day,” agrees Eric Tan, CIO of Coupa. “I strive to do everything in my power to help them reach that goal — whether it’s owning new projects or helping them network. I have always believed in investing in people to become our future leaders.”
Creating leaders is a big job and an important one. Leaders change the culture, productivity, and happiness level of everything they touch — in their team and in everything their team does. Creating those leaders is how you change the world, even after you have done your part and decided that it’s time you stayed out of the game. “You have to keep the ball rolling,” says Salmon.