The Question Every Employee Should be Able to Answer

How does your company create value?

Many people are familiar with the story of President Kennedy touring NASA, asking a janitor what he was doing, and the janitor replying that he was putting a man on the moon. Regardless of whether the story is true or apocryphal, it’s the source of tons of articles about how employees need to have job meaning, that there needs to be alignment within the organization from top to bottom, and that a clear vision from the leadership is paramount.

Now ask around and see how many people will give you an answer that matches putting an astronaut on the moon! With so many articles on the subject, you would think that companies would have long since taken it to heart and made sure that their employees are informed, motivated, and raring to go each and every day because they are making the world a better place, raising the bar on the human condition, and all of that delightful emotional candy that helps people sleep at night.

And I, like many other people, couldn’t figure out why so many employees had no clue about the meaning of their work, until my business students inadvertently gave me the answer. The midterm in one of my courses required that they compare and contrast the unique value propositions of two different, non-competing airlines as part of a larger question, and most of them couldn’t do it! Despite their taking strategy courses prior to mine, only about one-third of the students could come close to identifying the value proposition of each company. And, if business students can’t do it on a take-home midterm where they have plenty of time to do the research, how do we expect employees to do it? Then again, I attend a lot of startup networking events, and most of the CEOs of those new companies can’t tell me what their unique value propositions are, either.

And why not? Mostly because people have no conception of the value that a company creates, or why the company exists. If you ask someone why an ice cream shop exists, the standard answer you get is to sell ice cream. Some people will get as far as selling food that tastes good, but the reality is that you can buy tasty food in any grocery store, and most of them even carry ice cream! And after all, the ice cream in the grocery store is pretty good, and decidedly cheaper than an ice cream shop (especially after you factor in the overhead, cost of employees, etc.). Eventually, you get to the freshness of the ice cream, the wide variety of flavors and combinations, a bespoke dessert for every patron, none of which can be acquired at home efficiently. But, what’s the point of all of those things? Digging down, one gets to the positive experiences that come with ice cream in a shop: the stress reduction, the camaraderie of sharing with friends, the pleasure of an occasional treat, et cetera.

The value of an ice cream shop, then, is the positivity that it creates. That’s plenty obvious, once you think about it, but it’s actually so obvious that no one does think about it. Take a look at most of the companies you can name. If you stop and think about it for a few moments, you can drill down to why it’s there, but you don’t usually have the time for that…not even in your own company! When the inbox is overflowing, and your dueling office and cell phones won’t stop, and different coworkers drop by, and papers pile up, when would you even have the time to think about what it all means? And, when you finally get out of the office for the day, the last thing you want to do is think about it more!

And that’s why companies need to make it happen. During employee orientation, kick off the process by showing how the company does good (and every company can do good — whether it actually does is a different question).When people set tasks, update tasks, review tasks, evaluate tasks, it’s critical to take a moment to step back and understand the value that the tasks help to create. That means going through the entire value chain, from the typing of the first memo to the lives that are made better, and making sure that every member of the team understands the good that (s)he does.

Think of it as a post-meeting dessert.

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.

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