After retiring as CEO of Metronics, Bill George joined the faculty at Harvard’s business school. His course, True North, which sought to help develop the soft skills of students, quickly became the most popular course at the business school. At the core of course is Wall Street's fabled philosophy of “learn, earn, and then return”.
This philosophy effectively communicates the critical need in our lives to balance all three but get one major piece wrong. Unfortunately, this omission is detrimental to the well-being of people but also business.
The thinking goes something like this. You spend the first 30 years of your life “rubbing up against the world.” The first third of your life is spent learning skills and about yourself, as you gain new experiences to help identify your path. The second third of your life is when you are in the heart of your earning potential and serving as a leader. You begin to step up into leadership positions, and by your fifties you are at your peak. The final third of your life is focused on giving back. It is when you reinvest in future generations and the world. As George described, it is a time when leaders serve on boards and focus on sharing their wisdom with future generations through teaching, mentoring, and coaching.
Shaping a New Model
Apt as it may have been for another time, the “learn, earn, and then return” model is inadequate for today. It no longer fits our society or the needs of new generations. A more useful and frankly gratifying model is to blend all three into every year of your career - if not every day. We must constantly be learning, earning, and returning. Continual learning is a constant of successful careers, and many of those who wait to give back never get there. And even if they do, they miss 30 or 40 years of the pleasure of living with a guiding larger purpose.
The new model of integrating is what we should be teaching in business school, striving for as professionals and how we model our careers. It also becomes part of the social contract between us and our employers.
Jennifer Benz is the poster child for this new model. She is in her mid-thirties and has been able to proactively blend learning, earning, and returning into her work. This is a conscious practice that ensures balance. She is one of the happiest and most purpose-rich people I have the honor of knowing.
Jennifer runs the employee benefits communication agency, Benz Communications. She started it in 2006, and the success of the business has landed her on the top small business list in San Francisco, as well as on Inc. magazine's annual rankings. She is also proudly among the largest women-owned firms in the Bay Area. She isn’t making “Google” or “Apple” money, but she is making good money (as is her team) and building equity in a thriving business. The part of her work that she loves most is the constant learning. With all the changes in health care, she has to be constantly on her toes and adapting to serve her clients—it is her job to know the field better than anyone. That, coupled with learning how to run a business, has her constantly challenged and growing. Every year, she has major new learning curves to climb, both inside and outside her agency.
Employee benefits communication may not sound like a high-impact field, but Jennifer has seen the difference it can make and deeply believes she is making a critical impact in people’s lives. Large employers spend millions on benefits for employees, and many of them go unused or underused. Most companies are terrible at explaining their benefits to employees, and as a result, employees often are unaware or confused about their options. Jennifer finds her purpose renewed when she holds focus groups or interviews with employees. People often feel overwhelmed by health and financial decisions. They truly appreciate and find comfort in the unbiased education and support their employer can provide, and it results in better decisions and long-term outcomes for everyone.
She also finds tremendous purpose in being an advocate for employees in the employee benefits industry, where she has become an influential leader. It is an industry run by insurance and financial services companies, and most of the leaders are men 20 years her senior. As an activist and a younger woman, she is able to help bring key issues to the table that end up impacting the lives of tens of millions of people.
But for Jennifer, that isn’t enough. She is deeply involved in the lives of her employees and commits the firm and herself to considerable pro bono work. They do work for Text4Baby to support large-scale public health campaigns, and Jennifer serves on multiple community boards. She also travels around the world volunteering for low-income community health care providers. These commitments push her to stay focused on impact and maintain perspective. She has not only found ways to design her work to learn, earn, and return simultaneously; she has made each part an amplifier for the others. Balancing them actually increases all three, rather than depleting any one. She learns by returning. She returns by earning. It is a virtuous cycle.
It is important to appreciate what Jennifer has done by fully integrating these parts of her work at the same time. The new narrative presents a concept that we shouldn’t wait to revisit at age 60, but rather integrate into our careers from the start and throughout our lives.
The key to Jennifer's success is simple - she is working with purpose. She has designed a career around purpose which has naturally aligned learning, earning and returning. This is the core of the new platform Imperative that helps people work with purpose and thrive.
How are you blending learning, earning and returning into your work?