February 8, 2022

What does your heart most want to do? A Valentine’s gift you can give yourself

What does your heart want most from your professional life?

It might sound like a strange question, although one that is apropos for the Valentine’s Day season. I also think it’s a powerful question to ponder in this season of workforce upheaval. The reasons harken back to a conversation I had early in my leadership career that has stayed with me ever since.

Here’s the story.

Soon after accepting my first leadership role in academic medicine, my boss and I realized that I somehow had gotten the job without also setting up the accompanying faculty appointment that I should have had. It was a situation we needed to rectify, so he asked the department chair in my specialty to discuss it with me. That chair was Dr. Jerry Kruse, and he is now dean and provost at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, my alma mater.

As you might imagine, this visit with Jerry could have unfolded in such a predictable fashion that years later, I would barely remember it. He could have taken the path of least resistance and assigned me a role that fit his and the school’s priorities. It’s what many leaders would do.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead of presenting me with a proposal and asking, “will you sign?”, he sat me down and posed a very different question.

“What does your heart want to do more than anything in your professional life?”

I was stunned. And it took me more than a moment to formulate my answer. It took an hour’s conversation, grounded in Jerry’s approach to leading and developing people. He is the epitome of a classically trained family physician, a leader of people and organizations, and a model of excellence.

On that day, with that one simple question, Jerry opened a door that led me to where I am today. In fact, it’s part of why I think he fit the model of “dream boss” for me — because he allowed me to pursue my own dreams. (This book by Matthew Kelly tells the story of another “dream leader” and how that leader’s work transformed an organization.)

The best leaders do this for all those they lead.

What matters most to you?

The Great Resignation has gotten a lot of attention, and not just for the massive upheaval it is causing across the economy. It is truly a rethinking of what we are willing to give our employers – and what we want to get out of our work.

As I have written before, it’s not just about money or respect. It’s about equitable distribution of opportunities and respect. Work that aligns with our priorities. And work that gives us more of what matters most to us, whether it’s time with family, freedom to clock in from anywhere, or — yes — more appropriate compensation.

Fundamentally, it’s about going after a career that better reflects the answer to that question Jerry asked me so long ago.

What does your heart want to do more than anything?

Taking a seat at the table of your career

The unfortunate truth is, many people mistakenly believe they have little control over their careers. They feel limited by available positions, family obligations, economic trends and, of course, their supervisors’ grand (or not-so-grand) plans for them.

When Jerry dropped by to discuss my next move, I thought I, too, would be limited by what the leaders in my workplace had decided would be best for the school, the department and others.

Instead, I was invited to take a seat at the table of my own career. Jerry would no doubt have to make a decision that would also work for the institution. But he empowered me and gave me a voice. In reality, I always had that voice, but in that moment I learned that it mattered. I could take MY seat at the table.

I like remembering this story because I think serves as a wonderful example for managers and leaders today. It was instantly clear to me that Jerry saw his team not as human capital. We were simply human.

Conversely, the companies that are hemorrhaging workers in the Great Resignation have not always prioritized the human side of human capital, and they are now paying the price. Workers have decided it’s time for a new way of doing business and a new way of leading people.

What should that new way of leading look like?

Getting to know your people. Actually caring about what is important to them. And finding a way to meet their needs within whatever business constraints you are facing. You may not be able to give everyone their own assistant and two days a week to explore new ideas. You might not even have the luxury to pose the question that I was asked. But you can find out what motivates them … and then find a way to make space for that.

The result is impact. Leaders who approach their teams in this way can change lives. I won’t ever forget what Jerry did for me that day. It set my career on a new course that I am not sure I would have found otherwise.

What matters most to me

So, what was my answer? What did my heart most want in that moment?

Actually, it was impact. Jerry and I talked for a while, and I came to realize that what I wanted most was expand my scope of impact beyond one patient and one family at a time (although that work, too, obviously has impact and is work that I have loved!). I wanted to influence health at the community and population levels. Ultimately, I went back to school to obtain a master’s degree in public health that enabled me to achieve that goal.

But there is one other way that moment changed my life.

Today, my coaching practice is heavily based around one signature question that anyone can ask.

What matters most to you?

Sounds a lot like what Jerry asked, right?

For my clients, the answers serve as a touchstone for leadership decisions, time and energy management systems, and — of course — career design. “What matters most to you” helps my clients identify their destination, and then we use a proven process of proactive career mapping and planning to get them there.

After witnessing this process succeed many times over, I can assure you that you do have agency in your career. You can get where you want to go. And if you start with what matters most to you – what your heart wants most of all – I can promise you’ll also be more satisfied when you get there.

Happy Valentine’s Day from me and from my team at Metta Solutions!

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