Column: are you in love with your work?

My friend Denis has been in a passionless relationship for years. His friends and family have urged him to leave, but he hates to give up the stability and the comfort of a sure thing.

He's lost the spark he used to have in the early days, but feels that leaving would be a sign of failure. No matter how hard Denis tries to tell himself everything's all right, he knows something is missing.

Denis' problem is experienced by people of every generation: He's not in love with his job any more.

This Valentine's Day, when we celebrated love, how many of us are in love with our work? And how many of us are helping others discover that gift?

Doing work we love is a newfangled concept. For most Traditionalists (those born prior to 1945), love was the furthest thing from their minds when they entered the work world.

These veterans and products of the Great Depression felt fortunate to feed their families let alone fulfill their inner needs.

Yet somewhere along the way, many Traditionalists fell in love with their work. They had mentors who spotted some special knack or talent and put it to use. Or, lacking mentors, they just kept paying attention and pursuing what they were good at.

In contrast, many "30 somethings" I've talked with view the workplace as they do marriage - with a healthy dose of skepticism.

They've seen too many relationships fall apart in their lifetimes to believe in happily after after. They've witnessed corporate upheaval in the form of layoffs, mergers and acquisitions and they have listened to their parents' frustrations and disappointments on the job.

"I would never work for a corporation because corporations are evil," one entrepreneur told me recently.

Many baby boomers felt the same way in the 1960s. The establishment was the devil and buying into the capitalist agenda was selling out.

Then, gradually, many realized they were wrong. Over time, work became a place where they could unearth skills and talents and put them to use, if not within corporate America, then in small businesses, nonprofits or the public sector.

They also found the satisfaction of, say, closing a difficult sale, nailing a challenging presentation, or building something that would last. They experienced working not just for money or accomplishment, but for love.

How many are still in touch with such passion? And how many are passing along that invaluable gift to the next generation?

In a tight labor market, what better way to reach out to a disenfranchised group of younger workers than to invite them to be part of something that promises more than money and a title?

Job candidates and employees need something that they, too, can fall in love with. Time and again, I've asked people why they stay at a particular place of employment. The answer often comes down to connectedness: "I feel I belong here," "I'm making a contribution," "I care about this project."

In speaking with companies about how they attract, retain, motivate and manage the generations, however, I've been surprised by how many managers feel they are failing at recruiting.

"How can we get the best people?" they ask. "We're no dot-company. We don't have a flashy office with its own basketball court and bring-your parrot-to-work-day." Their job openings involve heavy lifting or loud factory noise or difficult schedules. Yet the world abounds with people who don't have the highest paying or most prestigious jobs but who love what they do.

I encountered a waitress at the JT Bar and Restaurant not long ago who was so passionate, so skilled, so right on in everything she did that it took my breath away. "How did you get so good?" I asked her.

"We have a great training program and super owners," she responded with a grin. "I like the people and I love what I do."

In recruiting, every company has a story to tell. Whatever it is that your company was built upon that gives it heart and soul, or that makes it important to customers is part of the story.

Whatever made you fall in love with the work you do can make someone else fall in love, too. The trick is to make sure you tell that story, both one-on-one with employees and via your Web site, job postings and other corporate communications.

Some have said, "Loving what you do is fine for those privileged enough to be able to choose their work, but not for the 'have-nots.'"

But the fact is that it simply doesn't matter what level of education of experience people have. Everyone is uniquely good at something and has the potential to express it in his or her work.

Every grade school child just learning to read, every high school student wondering about his future, every 45-year-old asking herself, "Is this all there is? And every 62-year-old thinking, "Gee, I'd like to do something that gets me excited one more time," has the potential to fall in love.

It's the job of leaders,regardless of their age or generation,to communicate the work that they first fell in love with and to help others have that same experience. The rewards in terms of a loyal, turned-on workforce are immense and powerful.

What can an individual do that is so specific to him or her that it creates a performance which is original, specific and magical?

Think of how extraordinary it would be if each one of us - as an employer, mentor or parent, regardless of age - could do just that for one another.

I personally am very honored to be involved in such a noble profession as economic development. Whatever our organization (NNDA) does affects ever citizen in Northern Nevada directly or indirectly. I am fortunate to look forward to Mondays.

Kris Holt is the executive director of the Northern Nevada Development Authority.


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