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Feeling useful is not a luxury

It’s not every day that a high-profile professional dismisses their own abilities, makes the news by resigning, acknowledges that privilege is a complex issue, and makes an important point about our relationship with work – but that’s just what Lucy Kellaway, the FT’s award-winning management columnist and journalist, has just done with the announcement that she’s resigning from her job to retrain as a maths teacher. Furthermore, she’s taking the opportunity to encourage others in the later stages of their careers to consider joining her.

As someone who has written – usually wittily and often acerbically – about careers, she is not the easiest writer to dismiss when she chooses to be candid about her reason for doing so. While she acknowledges the excitement of the new, especially after 31 years of journalism, she has explained in her own column that:

[…] the biggest thing, which readers may find hard to swallow given my entire career has been based on ridiculing others, is that, for my next act, I want to be useful. Yes, I know sticking pins in pompous chief executives is useful in a meta kind of way but that’s not the kind of useful I have in mind.

Without actually using the phrase, although it’s one she must have typed a great many times, Lucy has hit the nail on the head when it comes to one of the business industry’s Holy Grails: employee engagement. This state of being – so much discussed in some circles that it has almost acquired an aura of myth – is driven by many things: good working relationships, an environment where employees feel confident that they are learning and developing both personally and professionally, and an organisation whose work and purpose they admire are just three of them. But when it comes to summing up such HR-speak sentiments as ‘having a sense of making a personal contribution that is aligned with the organisation’s values and mission’, it is hard to be more succinct than “I want to be useful.”

It’s worth noting that this is not news: the importance of feeling useful isn’t just about a romanticised attempt to preserve that old chestnut, the Dignity of Labour. The importance of workers having a sense of meaning, purpose and usefulness has been noted several times before, by organisation’s whose insights we should probably trust and recognise:

The 2009 BIS report, Engage for Success (often reviewed to as The MacLeod Review), noted four drivers for engagement, one of which it defined as Employee Voice:

What is employee voice? Essentially, where an organisation sees its people not as the problem, rather as central to the solution; to be involved, listened to, and invited to contribute their experience, expertise and ideas.

CIPD’s Creating an Engaged Workforce’ Research Report, published in January 2010, identified three factors as making the biggest contribution:

  • Meaningfulness of work
  • Employee voice – and having the opportunity to use it
  • The way in which senior managers communicate with employees.

In the same year, the Workplace Foundation’s research report, Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership, identified among the nine attributes of the best leaders that they:

Bring meaning to life – Outstanding leadership enables a strong and shared sense of purpose across the organisation. They emphasise emotional connection for people with a focus on passion and on ethical purpose.

Lucy’s late working-life career change strikes another important blow too, of course: recognising the value of life experience, and that we can continue to have something valuable to offer once the first flush of youth has passed – something valuable for all organisations to bear in mind now that we are, in her words, “living until 100 and working until we’re 70.” Age may or may not mellow us, but it is also another form of diversity.

We wish Lucy well, and we can’t help but think that she demonstrates a keen understanding of what is as valuable to teachers as it has been to the managers she’s written about for so long: that a keen sense of purpose and an eagerness to improve others are not just among our finer qualities for our own benefit, but for those we work with too.

Although we believe in the power of feedback, we only have one small criticism – although it is perhaps more of the world of work than of her. When she says:

“I can afford the luxury of doing something that tangibly improves people’s lives.”

We can’t help but think that ‘luxury’ should be among the last words to be used when we are talking about something so vital to the satisfaction we take from our working, and personal, lives.[/fusion_text][button link=”https://calendly.com/consulting-team-ask” color=”custom” size=”large” stretch=”no” type=”flat” shape=”square” target=”_self” title=”Book a Conversation” gradient_colors=”#009abf|#009abf” gradient_hover_colors=”|” accent_color=”” accent_hover_color=”” bevel_color=”” border_width=”” icon=”” icon_position=”left” icon_divider=”no” modal=”meeting” animation_type=”0″ animation_direction=”left” animation_speed=”1″ animation_offset=”” alignment=”center” class=”” id=””]Book a Conversation[/button][modal name=”meeting” title=”Book a Conversation” size=”large” background=”” border_color=”” show_footer=”yes” class=”” id=””]


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