How do you keep top talent if your company doesn't want to “change the world”?

There are thousands of articles about how you attract the best people by having a company mission that will change the world, which galvanizes and acts as a true north. But what happens if you don’t?

It seems common wisdom that smart dedicated employees want to feel they are making a contribution to the planet.

Sometimes, companies end up with Franken-cultures that use “changing the world” as a way to convince people to “work harder for less so we can make more money and change the world... maybe” but counteracts it with a “we care about your personal wellbeing and have a masseuse in-house for when you are feeling burned out, but there is a long waiting list as many people feel burned out (including the masseuse)”.

“Change the world” is, like many other constructs around work and remuneration, an ego trip. Who wouldn’t rather say at parties, we are enabling small businesses in developing markets to grow vs we run a loan sharking operation providing money sourced from low-interest rate countries intended for social upliftment at onerous interest rates to the impoverished while we have masseuses in our offices. It is the new golden handcuff designed to keep employees engaged in the work they do because it has “Purpose”. I am not against changing the world (for the better), but perhaps I am cynical.

From personal experience, I was far more ruthless and focused on returns working for a large corporation owned by a charity (effectively our dividends funded schools in Africa) than I would be for myself. Every dollar earned went to a good cause and the means justified the ends. There was never a sense of enough profit because the need to do good was so great. While I am just one example, I know many similar organizations that work people to death for a “good cause” or extract unfair fees because they have ended up with a government license or grant due to their “for good” ethos.

Good things, that solve hard problems, when done at scale, often create the next set of hard problems.

This belief, however, is counterpointed by the growth in small, lifestyle-focused, businesses that pursue more free time and a better quality of life for owners and employees.

So how do you engage great employees that aren't working at companies that are changing the world? One option is giving them other forms of self-actualization that helps them to change themselves.

While I know there are many formulas and answers, what we have experimented with is increasing individual freedom by taking core assumptions people have around “loyalty” i.e. a mission, and turning them on their head.

We don't expect or want lifelong loyalty and don't want to gamify the work experience around that. To quote the famous saying “our best assets walk out the door every day”, which is funny because they aren't OUR ASSETS. They are their own assets (some of these assets even have names and little asset families, with asset pets).

We want the focus of everyone to be on what we deliver to clients, which means taking some strange decisions:

  1. Permission/freedom to switch off — this is work, you do it for the rewards it gives you — like money, new experiences, positive reinforcement. no unrealistic expectations (usually). We prefer people who work partial weeks and would rather add more team members than have people work themselves to death — the quality of work suffers and it's not worth the extra margin to do crap work.
  2. Have a side hustle — really, we don't mind. consider it your 20% time. A lot of our people are doing this while they are working on something else part-time. It’s one of the things that makes them good at what they do — curiosity and drive. I hope they all make it big and what they learned/experienced with us helped them get there. It definitely makes their work better.
  3. No career progression — we don’t have titles, we do have responsibilities (to others) that the roles entail. There are no perks, no special meetings etc. roles change per project so you can be a leader in one and a contributor in another.

p.s. These are some of the things that have worked for us and we find that resonates with (most) people that work with us. Everyplace is different. We aren’t here to change the world, but (hopefully) to empower people to change their worlds and change our client's businesses.