She takes full ownership for the mistake now, but there was a time not long ago when Karen Dillon, like so many of us, realized she wasn’t living up to the standards she had set for herself.

Dillon is the co-author, along with James Allworth and business management guru Clayton Christensen, of How Will You Measure Your Life? a bestselling book that explores how to avoid burnout, find fulfillment and, ultimately, deliver more value to customers. Dillon recently appeared as the keynote speaker on a webinar produced by the Conference Board of Canada to distill some of the book’s key takeaways.

“The kinds of things that make you ‘not unhappy’ in the job are the things that you say in job interviews and talk about at cocktail parties, like having a great office or working for a prestigious company,” she said, referring to this as the “hygiene factor” in career development. “But having a full plate of hygiene factors . . . that’s different than a job that’s making you happy.”

Instead, Dillon suggested looking for the “intrinsic motivators,” such as whether or not you feel respected at work, that you have chances to grow and learn, or whether you enjoy working with colleagues. “High achievers want hygiene, but the things that get you out of the desk in the long run are the intrinsic motivators.”

What reward systems reveal

As a former senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, Dillon considers herself one of those high achievers, but she’s learned some of these lessons the hard way. She described leaving a good-paying job at what could have been considered the height of her career when she realized work-related concerns were coming ahead of what she had told herself was her top priority: her husband and two daughters.

“Nothing about how I spent my time would have indicated that was true,” she admitted. “I was not making choices that would lead to family being the most important thing in my life.”

Many businesses have the same problem, according to Dillion. Her book tells a story about SonoSite, a company that makes ultrasound equipment. On a sales call, the company’s president and CEO was surprised when his salesperson risked losing a deal and not mentioning the firm’s less-expensive product. The reason was simple: salespeople at SonoSite got much higher commissions for its premium products, and making the same money with the cheaper products would have been a lot more work. Similarly, Dillon suggested we not only need to be honest about what we value, but how we and our colleagues are rewarded.

How High Achievers Behave

“Everyone is fighting for resources, time, energy. Is it who’s loudest, who’s fastest or who offers the highest ROI?” she asked. “High achievers are hard-wired to make one type of choice: Get a faster ROI at work. We don’t get those signs in our personal lives or relationships on a daily basis.” And even in the office, she added, there can be a big difference between what a company says it does and what actually takes place day-to-day.

Dillon’s advice does a lot to explain why change can be so hard, whether it’s selling a new kind of product or using new kinds of cloud-based tools to sell them. She recommended more Canadian business leaders to embrace the unknown and pivot like a startup competing in a difficult market.

“Many people and MBAs think they’re supposed to have a five-year plan: to be CEO of this, head, of that, and so on,” she said. “That’s fine, but you also have to be open to the unanticipated opportunities that arise . . . When you look at the research, 90 percent of companies are successful with a different strategy than what they thought of. You can apply that to your life as well.”

Photo by Glen Wright