Use Lean Startup Principles to Discover your Dream Career and Lead Positive Change

Be more innovative. Stop wasting people’s time. Be more successful.

These are the words of Eric Ries, who in 2011 fundamentally changed the way organizations foster innovation when he published The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. The premise of his book, and the successful businesses he highlights, is that effective leaders understand that their assumptions are often wrong, but by “getting out of the building and testing ideas and assumptions,” they can more economically understand what will (or won’t) work before investing too much in development.

ERIC RIESThe Lean Startup approach is not only relevant to startups and established enterprises, but also provides an invaluable method for individuals to test their professional convictions and career choices. Just as a startup should avoid spending years developing a product that nobody wants, every professional should avoid wasting time preparing for a career that they won’t enjoy.

More than ever before, it’s vital that we follow this advice. Organizations both large and small, for and non-profit, are reporting a massive leadership gap. According to the World Economic Form, one of the leading barriers to progress for social impact organization is a lack of access to quality talent. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, said it best: “There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organization’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow. It goes without saying that no company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.”

Employees Are Not Engaged, Not Even in Social Impact Organizations

The biggest driver of employee dissatisfaction in their career is a lack of engagement. Many employers know this, and yet struggle to address it. Unfortunately, few working professionals, even those employed by mission-based organizations, report that they like their jobs. According to the Gallup-Purdue Index report, only 39 percent of employees are engaged by their jobs. Another study from Opportunity Knocks highlights that, in addition to mission, “nonprofit employees want to work in a place where they can advance and develop skills” and that “45 percent of employees are planning on leaving their current employer” because they don’t feel engaged in their work, meaning that they don’t find satisfaction in their day-to-day workload or their long-term efforts.

Mission isn’t enough to keep you engaged. Finding a career that makes a difference requires more than a job that makes the world a better place.

The Three Drivers of Career Engagement

Regardless of their employment arrangement, research has shown that employees consistently emphasize three drivers of satisfaction:

  • Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves
  • Autonomy: The desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: The urge to get better and better at something that matters

However, thought leaders agree that the biggest determinant of an employee’s ability to activate these three drivers is direct management, and a manager’s—and company’s—ability to communicate with their employees. While many people find themselves in roles that don’t engage them, jobseekers confront a moment of incredible opportunity. By conducting an intentional and structured career search, many people can find greater enjoyment at work while also joining or leading high-performing teams that can create even greater impact.

Use Lean Startup Principles to Find a Career That Will Engage You

The biggest barrier to career satisfaction is not finding your dream job, but in understanding what your dream job actually is. The Lean Startup method has inspired a process of career discovery that can allow you to validate your assumptions about your career pursuit in three easy steps: 1) Learn, 2) Reflect, 3) Refine.

I. Learn

Conduct more research about the jobs you’ve considered and organizations you want to work for. Your assumptions about them might be wrong, and you need to test those before committing energy and resources to getting it. 

First, find people that work in your dream role and target organizations, and ask them to join you for a hot beverage of their choice or a virtual chat via Skype, Hangout, or phone.

Second, once you have an opportunity to engage, ask smart questions that uncover the truth about their careers and workplaces. Track these in a spreadsheet so you can truly understand this audience. Something like this:

Slide 2

As you interview people, ask questions that can elicit factual responses, not opinion. This may very well be the hardest part, so here are a couple thought-starters to help you frame questions:

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II. Reflect

To help find a better match, continue to understand your own strengths and motivations. Work hard to find a better idea of causes that motivate you, skills you enjoy learning, and your preferred work environment.

  • Learn more about your motivations and talents: Take the assessment from Imperative, Gallup Strengthsfinder, or the PwC Personal Brand Workbook.
  • Explore the skills you most enjoy learning: Volunteer your real skills with social impact organizations. Find a local, pro-bono position with Catch-a-Fire or Taproot, or take a vacation, sabbatical, or career break and do it through an organization like MovingWorlds.org, Technoserve or MBAs Without Borders.
  • Reflect on the work environment you like the most: First, ask yourself: “When in the past were you most engaged at work… and what type of team environment were you in?” Then ask your former co-workers, peers, friends, and family a simple question: “What is the team structure in which you think I will thrive?”

III. Refine

No role will be perfect for you out of the box. The real trick to refining your career comes with open and honest communication with your manager to continue to evolve your role so it supports your purpose, mastery, and autonomy. However, even before taking the position, when a manager conducts an employee reference on you, you should ask to do the same to his or her employees to make sure your manager is right for you.

While it might be new to negotiate with your manager about this, keep in mind the following: If you become disengaged, you are likely to deliver lower quality work, and ultimately will most likely leave that company. In which case, trying to replace you is much more challenging and costly: Remember the words of Timothy Clark Highly engaged employees make the customer experience. Disengaged employees break it.”

As you make, test, and refine your assumptions about your career, use the MovingWorlds Validation Board to document your discovery process.

 Moving Worlds ARTICLE GRAPHICS FINAL copy

More Than Just Validating Assumptions

Ask the founders of any successful startup and they will be the first to tell you that the only reason they are in business is because they took time to understand their customers. In fact, many of the early people they interviewed to better understand their assumptions likely became their first customers.


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Finding your dream career isn’t easy, but this process is the first step in the right direction. And while the work might seem exhaustive—finding people, interviewing them, reflecting, sharing with an advisor—here is the bright side: In the process, you’ll build your own network that will likely lead to your next job.

More importantly, finding purpose, autonomy, and mastery is about contributing your knowledge, passion, and work to filling the talent gap and making the worlds a better place. As Howard Thurman puts it “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

For access to an editable version of the previously mentioned files, visit the Finding Your For-Impact Career resource page on MovingWorlds.org, which includes tips on how to interview people, sample email templates, and starter scripts.
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