happy at work

Can you be successful and happy at work?

This is my first blog in over four years.

I stopped writing.

There was a time this would have been unimaginable to me. I had written a book, I had thousands of loyal newsletter subscribers, and the ritual of writing a blog every week to share the lessons I was learning leading a team and building a career was a true joy in my life. And then one day, I just stopped.

So, what happened?

Ironically, my career got in the way.

It didn’t just fizzle out a little at a time either. One day I made a choice to stop doing what I loved so I could direct 100% of my energy to my career. I wasn’t forced into it. Nobody asked me to quit writing. I made that choice all on my own, and I made it because I believed my career needed ABSOLUTE focus. That was my career strategy – total sacrifice. And it worked, for a while.

For 90% of my career, I believed my optimal strategy was to out-work everyone else. Even when I wasn’t actively working, I was thinking about work. I obsessed about it, playing endless scenarios over in my head, imagining debates and conflicts, over-preparing for every presentation, every plan, every proposal. My success was fuelled by ambition and anxiety.

I was perpetually unhappy with the trade I was making – my happiness for my work. I told myself I was making a calculated sacrifice to get ahead, but in truth, I just couldn’t see there was a better way.

Only now, having retired from my corporate life, and with the benefit of hindsight, can I see the smarter way. Not every successful business leader is a miserable mess. There are a few unicorns who have figured out how to be  successful and happy at work. They are the inspiration for this next chapter of my writing life.

I’ve spent the past year studying the happiest and most successful leaders I know. They have much to teach us, but for today’s blog I have distilled their magic into three core lessons for building a successful career without having to trade your happiness for it.

Lessons to be successful and happy at work

Lesson 1: They dictate the pace and boundaries.

The happiest and most successful leaders I know have this in common – they don’t burn out. They’re able to have long, positive, productive careers, with sustained tenures at winning companies. They don’t come out hot and flame out early. They set a pace and boundaries that allow them to reach the finish line. And in your career, that is where all the rewards are found.

I spent most of my career working at everyone else’s pace – I let them set the boundaries for my work life. If my boss emailed on Saturday at 10:00 am, I responded at 10:05 am. If someone needed to fly across the country at a moment’s notice, I was your guy. Urgent meeting at 11:00 pm for some big hairy issue in Australia? I’ll jump on a call in 5 minutes. I thought I was demonstrating commitment. I thought I was winning. I wasn’t.

Here is the truth: YOU ultimately set the pace and boundaries for your work-life, one way or the other. If you offer up every day and hour of your life, it will gladly be taken, and you will be graded against the expectation you have set. If you show your boss and co-workers that you respond to emails on Saturday mornings and are happy to hop on a call at 11:00 pm, YOU have set those expectations and they’ll hold you to it. But, if you are clear about setting and communicating boundaries, they will almost always be respected, and you’ll be graded against a much more sustainable expectation. It’s hard to see when you’re in it, but I can assure you it’s true. Your boss and co-workers will take every minute you offer them, but no more than you’ve told them is available to take.

Lesson 2: They focus on wins – they don’t need to be a part of everything.

The happiest and most successful leaders I know don’t get trapped into needing to be a part of everything at work. They stay focused on delivering big wins and they don’t let their egos trick them into needing to be included.

Like many ambitious, career-minded people, I spent a big chunk of my work life wanting to be included in everything. It would hurt if I wasn’t invited to a big meeting. I’d get jealous if I wasn’t tapped to join the special offsite. I’d always be willing to hop on a call to discuss a wide range of topics, whether it had anything to do with my team or not. It felt good to be needed and it felt bad to be excluded, and so I found ways to be a part of everything.

Too many of us focus our time on energy-sucking activities instead of concrete wins. We work and work and work and then we wake up one day and realize we haven’t done anything of real value for the company or for our team. We feed on micro doses of inclusion, and we trick ourselves out of actually winning at work.

The happiest and most successful leaders don’t waste their time on activities that won’t advance the big wins they’re pursuing. They’re able to quiet their egos and not worry about being invited to the secret meeting tomorrow afternoon. They build reputations for winning which leads to being included, not the other way around.

When you look at your priority list in the morning, do so through the lens of winning. Ask yourself and your team members: Which tasks are most likely to lead us to a big win? Which of these tasks are going to propel us forward? Which activities present the opportunity for a win that is disproportionate to the effort we would expend pursuing it? Spend your time on these activities and forget about being included in everything.

Lesson 3 – They are motivated by the work, not the kudos.

The happiest and most successful leaders I know aren’t motivated by praise or accolades. They aren’t gutted by criticism either. What motivates them is a love for the work itself and the success of the members of their teams. This is what fuels a long, fulfilling career and all the rewards that come with it.

Many career-minded people are driven by praise – me included. We ride an emotional roller coaster steered by the kudos and judgements of others. Our happiness, from one day to the next, is governed in large part by how our boss and co-workers feel about us at that moment in time. I rode this roller coaster for many years – and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I ever fully disembarked.

Praise is a hollow form of motivation, and it doesn’t scale well. What happens when your boss is tough? What happens when you progress to the executive ranks where kudos are few and far between? If you can’t sleep at night when your boss treats you harshly, how will you have enough in the tank to make it to the finish line of your career?

The happiest and most successful leaders take their motivation from doing important work and building great teams. They last because they find fuel in what they do and who they work with every day. This type of motivation protects them when they are criticized and provides a sustainable fuel, unlike kudos which come and go. They succeed in their careers because they aren’t addicted to praise, they’re in it for the work itself.

Can you be successful and happy at work? Final thoughts

You can have a successful career and be happy at the same time. It’s not easy. It eluded me for the lion’s share of my corporate life. But the lessons are there for us if we’re willing to seek out and embrace them.

The first of many blogs to come 🙂

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