Finding Meaning in Work

This past week, I met with several JMOs in Germany listening to their career and professional goals as they develop courses of action for their future career decisions. A common theme I heard from them was the need to find meaningful work where they felt they were serving others. Time Magazine recently ran a feature article on this generation as the “New Greatest Generation” playing off of Tom Brokaw’s popular and inspiring book, The Greatest Generation. I can see why Time chose to feature this group and also why Time called them “Great.” This generation’s mentality is to serve, to give back, and to find meaningful work.

Today’s JMO finds meaning in wearing the uniform and serving in the military, and is concerned about whether they will find something similar outside the military that will equal this level of contribution. I understand this because I remember going through the same thought process when deciding to leave the military. I remember having breakfast with my Brigade Commander as he tried to convince me that I would not find work with the same amount of service as being in the Army. I thought a lot about what he said, then I recalled what my Notre Dame Marketing Professor, Bob Drevs, told me: “It’s not what you do, but how you do it and who you are.” I realized that wearing the uniform and being in the military did not make me a service-oriented person, nor did it define me. Rather, my attitude and approach did.

The military does create an environment where it is natural to feel good about the service aspect of the work because our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and families are making tremendous sacrifices every day, often for great lengths of time when deployed. However, it still takes the right person to lead with integrity, mentor junior leaders, focus on results, make the “hard rights” instead of the “easy way outs,” and look beyond oneself to the greater good. It is the person who gets up every morning and chooses to live and work this way; it is not the uniform nor the environment.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Every day, you either make your workplace a little bit better or a little bit worse. Try to leave it a little bit better.” (First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham). I am not 100% successful, but I do want to leave my workplace better every day, and I encourage you to adopt this same approach. You may not be building schools, churches or water pipelines for people in Iraq or Afghanistan, but you can make a huge difference in your co-workers’, suppliers’, and customers’ days and lives.

Whether you are a JMO or are already in the business world, improving the lives around you begins in very simple ways. Simple things include attention to common courtesies – a smile, saying hello, a morning greeting, please and thank you – and taking a few moments to ask about someone’s son’s football game Friday night, their weekend or recent trip.

Sincere compliments also help. Do you thank someone for a job well done and give them a specific compliment? Do you seek out other people doing things well, or do you mostly provide “constructive feedback?” Feedback is important, but so is letting others know that you appreciate and respect them.

When I am not traveling, I go home every night and share my day with my wife and children. I talk about how I feel, what others said and things that bothered me. I imagine other people also talk about work when they go home. I want my teammates to go home feeling good if they put in a hard day’s work and did their best. I want them to not only have a sense of accomplishment, but also to know that their contribution mattered. To have that, they must hear it from me and not be left guessing. Simple things like common courtesies and sincere compliments can get lost in the daily prioritization of goals and deadlines, but recognize them for what they are. They are service and they add up to make a world of difference.

Giving back and serving does start with the small things, but you can also give back in more significant ways. This is possible in the civilian world because most people find more control over their careers in business versus the military. Therefore, they find time to volunteer in the community, mentor high school students, coach a team, or get involved with their church. Personally, Susan, my wife, and I decided to get involved with Foster Care. What started out as service ended up being life changing as we adopted two children. The old saying, “First, you give, then you receive,” certainly holds true as I feel so lucky to have them. Possibly, this is a path of service we may not have chosen had I stayed in the military.

Service is a choice, an attitude, a paradigm, a way of living a life – which includes your work. You spend 75% of your waking hours at work, so you cannot be a “giver” at home, but say there is no place or time for it in the workplace. You cannot turn it on and off. Certainly, there are environments like the military where service is more overt, and certainly your values must be in line with your company’s to be the servant leader you aspire to be. Creating a life of service and contribution does not hinge on whether or not you stay in the military. It begins and ends with your day-to-day commitment to give – in big and small ways – to those around you.

Joel Junker

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