September 26, 2022

Work with purpose: How understanding your North Star keeps you moving forward

Leadership Development

What are you working toward at work?

If the experience of my clients is any indication, one of the biggest challenges we all face is staying focused on our goals so we can realize them. Packed schedules, competing demands, urgent concerns and the difficulty of managing a personal life alongside a busy professional life make it all too easy to get sidetracked and lose sight of what we’re really doing and why.

I started thinking about this recently while talking with a senior leader who was having this experience herself. She was recently hired to build out a new program, and as we spoke, it became clear to both of us that she’d become distracted by the work of those around her.

Put yourself into her shoes for a moment, and you will see what I mean.

She’d hired a team to operationalize her plans, yet found herself being consulted about even the smallest decisions. Before long, she was vetting all the vendors, joining all the recruiting calls, and generally keeping a hand in all the pots. Meanwhile, her boss was peppering her with questions about finances and cutting her budget before the work even got off the ground. She was pulled in so many directions, she felt she couldn’t possibly meet anyone’s needs or expectations, least of all her own.

This probably sounds familiar to many of you. It certainly resonated with me. I have been there, and I struggled to find my way out of it. My experience helped me know a bit about what she needed.

It was time to get reacquainted with her North Star.

Reorienting your work life

We are all hired to do something. Often the best first step when you realize you’ve gotten pulled off course is to go back to that purpose. In this context, I think of it as a North Star for your work. Why does your role exist, and what have you been tasked with doing? That is your North Star.

For my senior leader friend, her purpose at work was to build out her new program, and so everything she spent her time on should have related to that work. Recall that she had hired a team to operationalize the fledgling program. That means the minutiae she found herself mired in was actually their North Star, not hers. Meanwhile her boss, the one who was cutting her budget? That leader’s North Star was the solvency of the institution. Those goals are all connected, but they aren’t the same.

As we continued our discussion, it became clear to her that understanding her own North Star was not enough. She had to think about the North Star for the team she had created and for her boss (and her boss, too). Her work was to build the program – everything else was important context she needed to understand, but the actual tasks all belonged to someone else. And in some cases, their tasks were pulling her away from the work she needed to be doing.

Understanding this is critical to reorienting your own professional life. You should be able to draw a direct line between the meetings you attend and your North Star. Same with the tasks you take on, and the goals you set. This is how you make the best use of your time – and how you can be most effective at realizing your goals.

Reaching your North Star

Understanding your North Star and the North Star of those around you can improve your effectiveness as a leader. It helps you recognize the best way to delegate. It can enhance your ability to work with allies and adversaries. It will position you to negotiate more effectively. And it will enable you to build more effective systems for getting things done, because you can ensure everyone’s part in the system aligns with their own North Star.

And alignment is really what this is about. When you link your day-to-day work to your North Star, your sails billow and the wind is at your back, pushing you more efficiently toward your goal.

Understanding your North Star is also important as you consider your own career development. If you feel a growing sense that it’s time to move on from your role, it may be simply that you are restless. It may also be that your North Star has shifted away from what you love. Maybe you were hired to build, and you built. Now that it’s time to maintain, you may be less satisfied. Reaching your North Star can be cause for celebration, and in some cases, it’s also a signal that it’s time for something new.

When you realize you’ve gotten to your North Star and completed the tasks you set out to complete, you’ll be ready to create a new North Star for yourself. And the journey will begin again.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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