Finding Meaning in Work as a Step Towards Achieving Excellence

No matter how disciplined, talented or organised a person is, there are times when work will be truly difficult.

Challenges will always arise when working inside any organisation.

There will be external challenges which could never have been foreseen (think Covid and the economic challenges which have followed in its wake). There will be moments where there is a fundamental clash of organisational visions, which make it harder for people to believe in what they are doing.

And of course there will be the dreaded conversations which cannot be avoided, or serious interpersonal or inter organisational conflicts which can only be managed with the greatest care.

Through all of these challenges, there is one crucial but often neglected factor which can help a high-level professional to persist and excel in any key role.

That factor is meaning, and on Thursday October 19th, the Timoney Leadership Institute hosted an Insight Session in which Dr. Vincent Ogutu of Strathmore University emphasised the importance of developing a meaningful work culture.

Dr. Ogutu is Vice-Chancellor of Strathmore University: a college in Nairobi which enjoys a reputation for excellence, particularly in the area of business.

Inspired as a young man to pursue an education in economics to help ameliorate the dire poverty which still plagued Kenyan society, Dr. Ogutu’s career has seen him work with world-leading universities and corporations.

Along the way, he has honed his skills as a lecturer in Organisational Behaviour, Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation while acquiring insights which he was happy to share with the Insight Session attendees.

Drawing upon his research, Dr. Ogutu categorised professionals into three groups in terms of what fuels their passion for work and where they find their sense of purpose.

First, there are the job oriented: those who work primarily for the money. They are driven to excel in the workplace in order to provide for themselves in those other areas of life where they actually find true meaning.

Though a job oriented person will excel in their role - achieving leadership status, hopefully, accompanied by ample monetary rewards - the job is a means to an end: providing a comfortable home for their loved ones possibly, or pursuing some other interests outside of their work hours.

Second, there are career oriented professionals. This cohort is not striving for excellence in order to attain the largest salary, but to gain the prestige which is attached to reaching the highest rung in their sector’s ladder.

Money may well follow, but wealth is not the goal they are aspiring towards. Instead, a career oriented person simply wants to be the best of the best: the most brilliant surgeon in their field, the most accomplished lawyer at the bar, and so forth.

Thirdly and finally, there is that special breed who are calling oriented. In this case, the person believes that what they are doing in their role can change the world for the better. Think, for example, of a cancer researcher whose motivation to conquer a particularly virulent form of the disease stems from a belief that they alone have the abilities to do this - an ability which comes with a sense of duty attached. Calling oriented people are also known to enjoy the work itself. Think of a musician or an artist who gets fulfilment from the creative work that they do.

Some people embody strong characteristics from across more than one of the three categories, but Dr. Ogutu’s experience suggests that generally people gravitate towards one category more than others.

That is not to say that this self-identity is static - far from it.

Careers are long, and even with the tendency for people to spend more time in third-level education, demographic changes in the future will likely make them longer still.

Just as people change over the decades, so too do their priorities, and Dr. Ogutu noted the recurring example of a job oriented person who had grown used to financial and professional success eventually asking themselves the question: ‘So what?’

Perhaps their life circumstances or interests have changed. Perhaps their children are fully grown, graduated and embarked on their own career journeys. Or perhaps the nearest golf course does not provide the satisfaction it once did.

What then? What is one to do when the end to which the means were dedicated is no longer required or no longer exists?

In such cases, it seems natural that someone may come to focus more on what their calling is. If this is not obvious to them, then they may benefit from asking themselves the key questions which Dr. Ogutu poses to us all: are you living a meaningful life, and what are you doing in your role to empower others in theirs?

A mid-life or mid-career crisis of identity is not the only situation in which questions of meaning will eventually be asked no matter how hard people try to avoid them by focusing on short-term activities instead of long-term goals.

As Dr. Ogutu points out, work takes up most of the day. Not only do we spend a large number of hours engaged in our respective roles, we spend considerable amounts of additional time thinking about that job, preparing for the job, commuting to and from that job, and so forth.

Professional and personal lives tend to blend together in some areas as friendships and relationships form. This strong focus on work can add to the terrible sense of frustration even the most dedicated people face when they do not believe in the organisation’s mission or purpose.

In this scenario, no level of competence can compensate for the absence of meaning in work. Meaningless work can correspond to a less than meaningful existence.

Individually and collectively, developing a meaningful work culture is key to achieving happiness while accomplishing what we have set out to do in our careers. That is why Dr. Ogutu’s insights have never been more needed.

James Bradshaw writes on topics including culture, history, film and literature.