What first motivated you to take up a job in your organisation or industry?
It's a simple question I have asked as part of my research, both current and past projects, meaning that I have collected the stories of nearly 50 people by now, across the defence and oil & gas / energy industries. All of them unique and personal stories leading to individual career decisions, which I wouldn't do justice to, should I try and bring them down to one or two simple trends. What is insightful and worth reflecting on is the variety and richness coming out of these experiences, and what that might mean for organisations. Do we go through an elaborate thinking process to weigh up career options before signing up anywhere? Do we enter an organisation or industry well versed on who they are and what they do? Do we, as candidates, always really have options?
Spoiler alert: not everyone is fulfilling a childhood dream...
But let's start with those who do. Indeed, for a few, starting a career where they did was the result of following a path they had traced for themselves since early on in their lives. With that said, even then, this early aspiration stemmed from a variety of backgrounds: a passion or fascination for particular science or technologies, a desire to follow on the footsteps of relatives, a core belief in an industry's purpose and desire to contribute to it, or an attraction to the perceived prestige of working for a household name. From an organisation's perspective, these might seem like a captive audience, people already bought into what the company stands for. In my experience, they have mostly remained strong supporters and advocates for their organisation after joining it. In some cases, however, the fact that people join with great enthusiasm and commitment also places the bar high in terms of their expectations of what life will really be like "on the inside", and the reality can come as a surprise, as they find out more about the inner workings of the organisation, or the full nature of its activities and impact, which, to date, they had only pictured based on information available to the general public. Facing that reality can trigger either greater interest, a need for reflection and adjustment, or the gradual development of a certain cognitive dissonance.
Not everyone has such a purposeful path into joining an industry or organisation, and for many of my research participants, this question brought up stories of "happy accidents", a mix of circumstances, unexpected opportunities, and influence from their personal network. In cases like these, people start from a position where they hadn't considered or thought about the industry they ended up working in as a career prospect. Then, the combination of them being open - or actively searching - for a new job, and an "event" or "intervention" of some sort, pushed them in that direction. Those events and interventions can take many forms too, sometimes it is a friend or acquaintance making them aware of an opportunity, effectively selling it to them and convincing them to put themselves forward; in other cases it is through working for an organisation as a third party that connections are being made, leading to an offer to join that organisation; for some it was a simple, seemingly trivial, conversation, which triggered a chain of events leading up to forming an employment relationship. All these happy accidents have in common the fact that people weren't actively seeking contact with these organisations, and that there was a process, to varying degrees, of nurturing their interest in the organisation. As a result, they tend to have less knowledge and insights into the industry or organisation when joining them. Interestingly, and as a result perhaps, most accounts of such stories came with a view from the participants that they only envisaged this as a short-term opportunity, or one leading to something else, rather than a firm commitment to this new environment.
Somewhere between these happy accidents, and the people actively seeking to join an industry or organisation, are the many people whose motivations and concerns are primarily practical, or utilitarian. At a graduate level, this can be driven by the financial need to gain one's independence and start repaying the tens of thousands of pounds of student debts amassed to get to that point - which brings another interesting aside on the different options available based on people's socio-economic backgrounds, and how much people can afford to be selective when they can't rely on external financial support and need to provide for themselves; indeed, "following your passions" early in life sadly remains all too often a path available only to the most privileged. At that stage, it could be a case of applying to many organisations or programmes, and settling for the first credible offer coming through. For others, decisions can be based on geographical considerations; for those wishing to live in certain regions, away from the bigger cities, employment opportunities can heavily depend on the prevailing industries in those regions, which can also offer a sense of security. In cases like these, where the primary driver is to find employment, people tend to admit having conducted research primarily for the purpose of preparing for interviews, rather than engaging in reflection as to whether their personal values align with their organisation's, as they often do not see themselves able to afford saying no to an offer.
Through the examples I presented here, I wanted to illustrate the diversity in people's stories and decision-making processes which have led them to join a particular industry or organisation. Now, why should this matter and be of any interest to organisations and their leaders? Let me share a few final reflections:
Not all new hires start with the same enthusiasm for their new company - they will all be happy to have a job, join a new community, etc., but that doesn't make them instant advocates for the organisation from day 1, and neither should they be expected to be.
It is ok, and to be expected, that people have a limited knowledge of the company's activities when they join. I often hear people say "if you decide to join, you know what you're letting yourself in for"; my experience and conversations show that this can be far from the truth, and that the real journey of discovery starts on day 1. Openly accompanying this journey is of interest to all involved.
People do not automatically swap their core personal beliefs for the organisation's values, just by signing their employment contract. They will continue to apply their own judgement over the organisation's activities and environment, even if they might not be vocal about it.
The focus of onboarding people often is on getting them to internalise and assimilate the organisation's identity, values, etc., when little is often done to harness the diversity of thoughts, experiences and belief systems people bring with them, and no space given for them to even express and share them. These could however be valuable insights, arguably ones which should help inform higher levels of leadership.
I should acknowledge that the perspectives I shared from my research focus on the defence and oil & gas industries which, one might argue, are more likely than other to attract contrasting and conflicting viewpoints about the nature of their activities. I would respond by saying that these are undoubtedly more salient than in other sectors, yet to still invite reflections as to what that might mean for other types of organisations, smaller organisations, ones with less controversial outputs - could acknowledging this diversity of motivations and perspectives still make a positive difference in improving the business, perhaps identifying areas which might have been blind spots? I am convinced that it would.
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