Great leaders help people find passion for their work — even for the most unappealing jobs. Here’s how. . .

Ever heard the advice, “You really need to love your job”? It’s usually offered unsolicited by an overconfident boss who thinks the rank and file will find it inspiring, or somehow turn their drudgery into a rewarding experience.

Does it work? Of course not. You can’t order people to love their job. That just gives them inspiration to quit and go somewhere with more exciting work. Far better to help them find the passion for their work.

In spring 2009 I needed to find that passion myself. I’d just been asked to take a new position as director of consumer research for Procter & Gamble’s paper business. That meant I was going to be in charge of consumer research for, among other things, Puffs facial tissue and Charmin bath tissue. I imagined myself at a cocktail party having to tell people I was literally in charge of doing research on how people blow their noses and wipe their butts.

That didn’t sound very glamorous, or even interesting. I immediately formed a host of prejudicial notions about what it would be like to work in the toilet paper business. I couldn’t think of a less important product in terms of impacting people’s lives.

Plus, for a marketing researcher like me, I thought there couldn’t be many unexplored ways you could talk about how soft and absorbent a piece of paper was, right?

Fortunately, my first stop with the news was to see my good friend Jeff Brooks. Today he’s a consultant and professor at the Jack Welch Management Institute. But at the time, he was a fellow P&Ger. After suffering through the obligatory potty humor, he ended up telling me the following story that helped me appreciate my new role in a way neither of us expected at the time.

At the end of a weeklong business trip to Budapest, Hungary, Jeff had a short train ride to the airport for his return home. He sat next to a fellow American, now living in Budapest, so they struck up a conversation. When she found out it was his first trip to Hungary, she asked him what he thought of it. In a very cordial manner, he replied that he liked it very much, and that there was much to do in Budapest. After finishing the socially graceful answer, however, he began to tell her a little more about what he really thought.

“The people were very nice,” he said, “but they all seemed a bit melancholy. Depressed even. And the weather was beautiful, so that wasn’t the problem. Most of them just seemed irritable and unhappy.” He went on to describe in detail the behavior he saw that led him to his dreary conclusion.

As he did, the woman nodded and smiled knowingly, as if to agree with his assessment. When he finished his story, the woman turned quietly and looked out the window in a contemplative manner. After a long pause, and without even looking back at him, she sighed, and said matter-of-factly, “I think it’s the toilet paper.”

Okay, it’s funnier when you hear the story told in person. But the woman was dead serious. Here’s the point. Toilet paper may seem like a pedestrian, unimportant part of people’s daily lives. But imagine what your day might be like if all you ever had to use for toilet paper was the thin, rough, cheap tissue you might imagine to be typical in Budapest 20 years ago.

If that’s all you ever used, you might be constantly chafed and slightly irritated in your nether region. Perhaps not so much that you thought about it constantly, but enough that it might just make every day a little less pleasant. And that might make you a little more short-tempered with a visiting businessman from the States, as well as anyone else who crossed your path.

The implication to me for my new job was this. We may not be curing cancer. But what we do matters to people probably more than we realize, perhaps even more than they realize. One of my prejudicial notions had just evaporated. The toilet paper business still wasn’t going to be glamorous. But at least it felt more meaningful now.

What I came looking for when I entered Jeff’s office was a sympathetic ear to commiserate with. What I left with was an eagerness and passion for my work that I hadn’t even started yet.

For the next four years, I told that story to dozens of other newcomers to the paper business. Many of them, it turns out, came with the same preconceived notions I did. And many of them, like me, abandoned that preconceived notion very quickly after hearing this story.

And if a simple story like that can help someone get excited about working on toilet paper, imagine what a good story can do for the business you’re in.

To find a story to help people have passion for their jobs where you work, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What was the first moment you realized you loved your job or profession?
  2. What was the proudest moment of your career?
  3. Think of a time when something unexpected happened that made you think, “Wow, I had no idea what I did mattered so much to someone?”
  4. When was the last time someone sincerely thanked you just for doing your job? What had you just done for them?
  5. Imagine nobody in the entire world made the type of product you make or provided the kind of service you provide? What would it be like to live for a month in that kind of a world?

When you have a good answer to one of those questions, that’s the story you need to tell others — or perhaps just yourself — to keep everyone excited to come to work in the morning.

And if you can’t get people to find passion for their work. Try getting them to find some passion for the people they’re doing the work for — your customers. Click here for a podcast about how the CEO of Dollar General helped one Hewlett Packard marketing director do exactly that.

Source: Lead with a Story, by Paul Smith.

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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