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IOn the Contrary-I Fleeing Corporate America for More Meaningful Jobs

October 1, 1998
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Featured Article
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I started my journalism career working as a business reporter for a daily newspaper in Chico, California. Located about three hours north of San Francisco, Chico is the kind of small town where main street merchants still host concerts in the park on Friday evenings.

As a young reporter, one of my responsibilities was to attend ribbon cuttings held by new chamber of commerce members. We’re not talking Lucent Technologies or American Express here. Instead, typical ribbon cuttings were held at hair salons, print shops and travel agencies—the kind of businesses that support urban refugees who seek simpler, small-town living. My personal favorite was a combined dress shop/public relations firm owned by an eccentric older woman who read magazines while dining at restaurants with her husband.

Although my only obligation was to get a brief quote from the owners, the way they carried on, you’d think I was a member of Kenneth Starr’s investigating team. I heard about dreams, future plans, community contributions, marketing strategies, customer service, signage, parking and why dresses in a PR firm made perfect sense. In short, I heard passion. These budding entrepreneurs cared about their companies. Their work had meaning.

Today, I write about Corporate America, not small business, and what I miss most is the enthusiasm of the smaller companies. Rarely do I hear corporate employees describe work as a place where they live out their dreams.

This is why I wasn’t too surprised when I read a recent report by Catalyst, a corporate research and advisory firm based in New York City, that explained why so many women are leaving the private sector to start their own companies. While the glass ceiling is part of the reason—and a significant one, at that—the real reason women are leaving 401(k) plans and vending-machine lunches behind is to find work that means something to them.

According to the report, women are becoming entrepreneurs in record numbers because they have good ideas, they seek challenge, and they want their contributions recognized. In fact, when asked about their reasons for leaving corporate employment, the allure of business ownership, including flexibility and independence, was cited almost three times more often than glass-ceiling issues. Considering all of these factors, you begin to realize that women aren’t running away from the corporate world so much as they’re running toward work that matters to them.

But women with the desire to have an impact aren’t just opening their own businesses. They’re also leaping off the corporate ladder into smaller start-up firms and non-profit organizations. Take Rebecca Chekouras, who spent years selling mayonnaise and other products for a major food company. Although she made a pile of money, she was miserable. "I felt as if I was in a flywheel and had flung so far off center that I didn’t know who I was anymore," she explains.

Today, Chekouras is the director of development for The Women’s Philharmonic based in San Francisco. When she describes her work, she uses words like values, recognition and making a difference. "When I thought about what was more important culturally to our society—mayonnaise or music—the choice was very clear to me," she says.

Women are leading the way.
Chekouras and the thousands of women like her aren’t merely a trend in and of themselves. Their movement away from Corporate America isn’t only a glass-ceiling issue, and it isn’t only a women’s issue. I believe they’re actually harbingers of a greater societal change in which more people—men included—are more willing to trade their unfulfilling jobs in large companies for more meaningful work in smaller organizations.

Let me explain. Women have long been society’s leading indicators of change. Their collective actions have had an impact on politics, on the media and on business. Thanks largely to the influence of women, corporate management is now more collaborative, corporate benefits include work/family programs and sexual harassment policies are strictly enforced.

Just as these women have changed society over the last 30 years, their search for more fulfilling work is creating a national dialogue about what makes work personally meaningful—a dialogue that increasingly includes men. As Peter D. Moore, author of The Caterpillar Doesn’t Know: How Personal Change is Creating Organizational Change (Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1998), explains: "As women migrate away from large institutions out of a desire for more personal growth, we’ll absolutely see more men making similar choices."

There have already been signs of this occurring. Last year, Jesus Leon gave up a senior executive job with a global telecom company—complete with a $200 million budget, two assistants and six weeks of vacation—to head product development at Ciena, a newly public company based in Baltimore. With this change of employment, he gave up five weeks of vacation and 25 percent of his salary because he wanted an entrepreneurial challenge.

On his new job, Leon was quoted in Fortune magazine saying: "I love it. Instead of looking after 1,200 people whose names I don’t know, I get to be an artist. I get to paint what Ciena will be."

Economically, the time is right for both men and women to be making these choices. The job market has never been better, opportunities at start-up companies abound, and the majority of corporate employees now have working spouses, which gives them both the kind of safety net needed to get out of boring, repetitive and uninspired work situations.

Keeping employees by helping them find meaningful work.
This growing search for fulfillment will obviously have a profound effect on the way companies go about retaining employees. Competitive compensation and regular promotions may have kept people in the past, but not anymore. To retain good, productive employees, employers have to find ways of making work more meaningful.

Granted, this is much easier said than done; what makes one person want to leap out of bed in the morning may cause another to sink under the covers in anguish. For example, opening a hair salon just wouldn’t do it for me. The trick lies in helping employees uncover what is meaningful for them and then helping those employees find that meaning somewhere in the current work environment.

To use the "Horse Whisperer" metaphor, you have to recognize who the employees really are—not who you think they should be—and what they need to be happy. How? By asking them. You see, few employees will complain directly to management about the unsatisfactory aspects of their jobs. They’d rather grin, bear it and search for new opportunities. But instead of waiting until the exit interview to find out what might have kept them, doesn’t it make sense to find out what they need while still employed?

The number of women-owned businesses grows exponentially each year—they now employ 35 percent people more than the Fortune 500 combined—and the number of men who are willing to make similar values-based career choices is increasing right along with them. HR better take notice. The search for meaning isn’t just a new-age, end-of-the-millennium personal growth phenomenon. It’s a business reality with potentially serious bottom-line repercussions.

Workforce, October 1998, Vol. 77, No. 10, pp. 23-26.

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