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Cultivating a Values-Aligned Career

by Will Rosenzweig Faculty Steward and Co-founder, Plant Futures

It’s Spring!—a vibrant time of year, pulsing with energy, renewal and transitions. It’s a perfect time to plant new seeds and cultivate future possibilities. I’m enjoying talking with many of you and am noticing a marked increase in our Plant Futurists’ desire for values alignment at work—the impetus to have “who you are” fit with “what you do.” It’s common these days, during my office hours, to get into a conversation with a student nearing graduation who asks, “how do I find a job that fits my values? I really don’t want to work just anywhere.” This is a distinct departure from a more compartmentalized approach to work and social life that pervaded prior generations. This trend has progressed steadily from Gen X to Millennials to Gen Z. It’s not only my impression; LinkedIn's Workforce Confidence report found 80% of Gen-Z employees are looking to work for companies whose values better align with their own. Many in our student community are searching for ways to reject and reinvent the current system, with its short-term, “growth at all costs, winner take all” paradigm, and its extractive, wasteful, disposable values and practices. This generation expects more from the enterprises they buy from. There is a growing demand for transparency and authenticity and a sense that corporate profits should be accompanied by true organizational citizenship—which includes care for people, communities, non-human species and the planet. Naomi, a graduating senior, came to meet me last week and was seeking some guidance about how to find a meaningful job where her values would be aligned with her future organization’s. Here is some of the advice I offered—much of it informed by many years as an employer and a gardener:

1. Shift from being reactive to proactive. Like many of her peers, Naomi’s job search is primarily guided by reacting and responding to job openings that she is finding posted on-line. She has filled out many applications and sent in lots of resumes and is finding the process slow, tedious, and at times discouraging. Responses are limited and rarely timely and she gains very little insight into how these processes are proceeding. She keeps a spreadsheet to track all the applications she submits, with dates and anticipated response times. My suggestion: Make a list of 10 companies that you trust and admire, where you believe your values may be aligned and where you could see yourself happily employed. It’s a bonus if you have first hand experience as a customer of one of these organizations. Research the organization’s values and check for alignment with your own. You’ll rarely find a perfect match on all fronts, so figure out what is most important to you. Set up ways to actively monitor the organization’s job postings and work hard to network your way into an informational interview via someone you know or an alumnus who works there. Do your best to establish an inside contact and introduce yourself. Write a great, compelling personal cover letter to accompany your resume. Share your passion and your experience. (More on this below). Follow up three times if you don’t hear back. Learn to be perceived as thoughtful, committed and persistent (rather than a pain in the a#%.)

2. Shift from being transactional to relational. Differentiate yourself. Job searching is inherently transactional; an organization is looking to fill a role and they are seeking expertise and a set of experiences that they feel fit that role. Try to flip this and make it relational. If you’re young in your career, you probably don’t have everything an employer is looking for, and they have no idea how amazing you are! My suggestion: When you create your list of ten target organizations (#1 above) study them carefully and try to learn as much as you can about them—their current opportunities and challenges. Read about them in the trade publications that follow them—what issues are they facing? Dive into these problems and work on identifying or developing solutions for them. Think about how you could be helpful and add value to this organization. Put these ideas in your next follow up letter. Imagine yourself co-designing the perfect role that leads to mutual flourishing—your’s and the organization’s. The more you can demonstrate that you have invested yourself in their success, and gained some insights about how to add value, the more likely you are to stand out from other candidates who have filled out an application. You are demonstrating your commitment and ability to contribute to their success, not just looking for a job.

3. Cultivate prospective and existing professional relationships. Cultivation is a developed skill that involves genuine care, continuity of attention and persistence. The chances of finding a values-aligned job on your own time frame can be enhanced by having a broad and strong network of professional relationships. Cultivation keeps the gift and flow of reciprocal energy in motion. How should you go about cultivating these relationships? My suggestion: Try to establish personal connections in real life, whenever possible. Meet for tea. Come prepared. Talk about things that matter. Listen deeply. Bring a small gift. Write a thank you note after you meet. Check in periodically—not necessarily when you need something from the other person, but when you think of them or find something that you think they would find interesting or of value—like an article or podcast recommendation. Share these little, thoughtful gifts from time to time. Be selective. Any one person can only cultivate a finite number of key relationships at a time. Think of these relationships like your living houseplants: They need continuous partial attention, water, sunlight and nourishment to stay healthy and vital.

4. Your network of relationships is more likely to help you find values alignment in your work When you do finally get through to a member of your top ten list, check in with that person and see how their experience of the organization’s values has played out in their job life. Sometimes organizations project values to their external constituents that sometimes aren’t delivered; there can be a gap between the “talk” and the “walk”. Be idealistic, but stay realistic (and slightly skeptical.) Keep this network of relationships apprised of your job search and your progress. They will be on the lookout for you. When you do find your next role, let these people know where you landed, with a personal note expressing your gratitude for the ways they were helpful to you along the way. Remember that everything is always changing. If you stay open and present and connected serendipity is likely to present itself!

5. Reflect and Persist with Patience and Positivity. Remember that a meaningful livelihood often unfolds in a surprising, non-linear manner. One thing leads to another. Be both patient and persistent. You may have an idea and a strategy of exactly where you’d like to go, but life rarely turns out as planned. Stay open to outcome, but not attached to a particular outcome. Through cultivation— differentiating yourself, being proactive, relational and caring about others’ well being, you will generate goodwill in the world, which is the precursor of serendipity—that magical moment when life’s unpredictable forces align in your favor. Practice staying positive and do the things that help you stay positive (get enough sleep, exercise, spend time in nature with friends.) Develop good habits and realize that your job searching process is a learning journey. Reflect on all your interactions. Keep a journal/notebook of all of your calls, meetings. Note the time and place when you met. Practice being grateful for what’s working for you and supporting you.

Commit yourself to this practice of lifelong cultivation and you will generate an evergreen garden of lively possibilities. Wishing you all a spirited spring filled with new beginnings and many blossoms!

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