How to hire your employer

Published on October 12, 2016

Featured in: Big Ideas & Innovation, Careers: The Next Level, Editor’s Picks, Entrepreneurship, LinkedIn

, Professor at Harvard Business School

My new book, Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, debuted this past week, but it’s work that’s been nearly two decades in the making. For years my research has focused on understanding why good companies so often fail, a quest that led me to write The Innovator’s Dilemma years ago. But as I tried to answer that question, a new and pressing one emerged: how can companies know how to grow? The answer, I believe, lies in getting at the causal mechanism of customer choice – knowing why consumers make the choices they do to pick one product or service over another. To understand this, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a critical question to ask: “What job did you hire that product to do?”

For me, this is a neat idea. When we buy a product, we are essentially ‘hiring’ it to get a job done. If it does the job well, when we are confronted with the same job, we hire that same product again. And if the product does a crummy job, we ‘fire’ it and look around for something else we might hire to solve the problem. Every day stuff happens to all of us. Jobs arise in our lives that we need to get done. When we realize we have a job to do, we reach out and pull something into our lives to get the job done. When we ‘hire’ something to get a job done, we’re striving to make progress where we’ve been struggling. Jobs are not just functional – getting something done. They have critical social and emotional dimensions, too. Framing the question in this way has been a key to growth for companies as diverse as Intuit’s TurboTax, Khan Academy, and BuzzFeed.

Applying ‘Jobs’ to jobs

Yet I can think of few more important Jobs in our lives than the ones we ‘hire’ to bring us professional satisfaction. When you make a choice to accept a new job, yes, the company is hiring you, but you’re also hiring the company. You’re trying to make progress in your career and in your life. If you want to be sure you’re making a good choice, you better know what job you’re hiring your company to do for you.

Thinking about the professional opportunities in our lives through the lens of Jobs to Be Done—in essence, asking yourself ‘What Job did I hire my job to do?’—should provide you with a completely different set of criteria for making career moves. What will make you happy, in the long run? It’s seldom as simple as the right title and salary – those are just the functional dimensions of the job to be done. But what about the emotional and social ones?

When we find ourselves stuck in unhappy careers—and even unhappy lives—it is often the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what really motivates us. As we discussed in our book How Will You Measure Your Life, just because you’re not dissatisfied with your career path, doesn’t mean you’re satisfied with it. The things that you might easily put on your resume or talk about at a cocktail party, such as your job title or how big your office is, are not what really motivates most people in the long run. Instead, we’re driven by what we call “intrinsic’’ factors. They’re more difficult to see when you’re sizing up a job opportunity, but extremely important. Instead of simply asking about the perks and benefits of a new job, try asking yourself:

  1. Am I being challenged and learning in this job?
  2. Am I respected by my peers and my boss?
  3. Does the company have a mission I truly believe in?

This insight is based on the highly influential work by Frederick Herzberg, published in Harvard Business Review. We know that long-term happiness is far more likely to come from those sources of intrinsic motivation than anything you might see in a job listing. The path to career happiness is long and filled with hurdles for most people. But each step on that path should be helping you make progress towards your goals – the “Job” you are hiring that position to do. If you’re not making choices that will provide you with true motivation, you’re unlikely to find professional happiness in the long run.

When a downgrade is an upgrade

This is something managers should consider, too. Phil Caravaggio, founder of Precision Nutrition, has used Jobs Theory in making sure that the people he’s bringing into his rapidly growing entrepreneurial venture are the right fit. For example, Caravaggio recalls questioning why a top-notch candidate for a job at his company was looking to leave a similar position at a larger, more ‘prestigious’ organization. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Why would someone want this job if they’re coming from that job?’’ His existing job clearly had greater responsibilities in terms of how many people he’d be managing, the complexity of the work, the amount of money under his management. On paper, he was a really great candidate, but I wasn’t sure why the move made sense to him.’’

So Caravaggio interviewed him through the lens of Jobs to Be Done. “I wanted to know whether our organization was the right fit for him,’’ he recalls. When he did this, Caravaggio learned that the candidate’s existing company was moving further from his home, was on an acquisition spree, and generally was consuming most of his waking hours. His ambition and energy for his work hadn’t diminished, but there were important social and emotional factors in his decision about what career opportunities to ‘hire’. He had a young daughter and realized his time with her was precious and fleeting. He wanted a job that would allow him to do great work, but also prioritize his family. “When he told me that, I got it. We work remotely. You can set your own schedule. We have a structure that gives people more autonomy than they’re used to. All of those convinced me this would be a really good fit.’’ And he was. Caravaggio hired him and it’s proven to be a great match.

It’s insights like these that enable people to make better decisions that motivate me to do my work. It’s taken me 20 years to refine and shape the Theory of Jobs to Be Done, with the help of my co-authors, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan and many colleagues and business leaders. But if it helps you, not just in how you innovate, but in your own life, it will have been time well spent.

Clayton M. Christensen is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He is the best-selling author of eleven books, including Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice.


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