Nobody works for you

One of the useful things about getting old is that, quite inevitably, you start working side-by-side with folks from your kids’ generation. It’s a cool third act in a career — first the upstart, then the status quo, and finally the target of new upstarts ready to fix what you didn’t. One of the most positive contributions I’ve seen from today’s “kids” is an awareness that casual language really matters, whether you “mean it” or not. I grew up in a world where every group of people was “guys” and dumb things were “retarded.” It bums me out to consider how many folks I surely hurt without ever having a clue — glad for the opportunity to fix it now.

Anyways, there is one of these words that has always bothered me, but seems to fly under the radar for most. I have never in my life worked “for” anyone, and nobody has ever worked “for” me. That’s the language of lords and serfs, not of free and equal people. I work “with” people in a voluntary exchange of our time, ideas and labor in return for things we value. And while I am sure this seems like a trivial or irrelevant nit to many, words do matter, and if you pay attention in the workplace I bet you’ll start seeing a difference.

I’ve tried to be explicit about that exchange of value over the course of my career. Not just for me (which is important), but for the folks I’ve built teams around. If you hope to keep smart folks working with you, it helps to know why they’re doing it. At the end of the day, I’ve found there are really only four key things that drive people to work: Mission, Money, Friends and Learning. The mix varies widely, but the ingredients are quite consistent.


For many folks, doing good is a powerful motivator … everybody would love to tell their grandkids that they helped to build a more just, verdant and peaceful world (NPR listeners know who that is). If you are lucky enough to be at a mission-based company, this really is the dominant “glue” that binds people to the work. Hands down the proudest moments of my career were spent helping Lanny understand and explain unusual clonoSEQ results. I mean, my code helped guide treatment for real kids battling ALL — it doesn’t get much more rewarding than that.

Unfortunately, not every company does this kind of work. I mean, maybe your cloud storage API made it easier to build the bug tracking tool that led to a more reliable word processor that helped somebody write a grant that secured funds for research into long-haul Covid? I’m not saying those things aren’t useful or interesting, because they are. They just don’t deliver the same kind of emotional cocaine that makes it easier to get out of bed at 2am on Sunday to fix a production bug.

The key here is to understand where your company is on this spectrum. If you are honestly doing good, your co-workers will have deep reserves to fight through the tough times. Just don’t abuse that gift — quality people don’t stay long where they feel manipulated or taken advantage of. And if you’re not a “mission” company, that’s ok — there are lots of other ways people derive value from their work. Just don’t try to fake it … you’ll end up looking like an idiot.


People like to pretend that money doesn’t matter — they are lying. Money received in exchange for labor (and ideas, etc.) is the most direct, spin-free way that a company tells folks how much they are worth (to the company, not in some intrinsic way). Money was invented to be a fungible proxy for value, and it does that very well.

There are basically three flavors of money that modern companies offer: dollars, stock, and benefits. Dollars are of course the simplest, no muss no fuss. Stock is my personal favorite (whether options or actual shares) — “employees” that are true owners just think differently about their participation, and stock-compensated teams bind together in a very meaningful way. But stock is high risk, and many folks have cash-flow needs that only dollars can satisfy; that just is what it is.

If I could wave a magic wand, “benefits” would go away tomorrow. Our taxes would fund health care and base-level retirement for every resident, and other services would be purchased in the market with the extra dollars employees would receive directly instead. There is really no good reason that these things are tied to our jobs. It’s just a quirk of history that has become a company-friendly way to justify lower salaries (by arbitraging the purchase cost of benefits). Of course, I don’t have that wand — so at least be aware and price your “total compensation package” honestly.

By the way, you know what isn’t money? “Recognition awards” that come in the form of paper certificates or Lucite plaques or whatever. While often well-intentioned, my reaction to these programs is always — just give them some damn money. Personal recognition is nice, but we are supposedly all adults here, and I don’t really need your free-to-print gold star thank you very much. I get that this reaction is extreme, but it hearkens back to that lord/serf relationship, or maybe a childlike desire for praise I find a little cringeworthy.


I think this will be the most interesting dynamic to watch as we move through a second year of mostly-remote work. For sure many professional relationships are no more than that — but the workplace is also a primary source of friendship and social interaction for most of us. Excepting family and a very few childhood ties, pretty much all my closest friends were colleagues first.

Teams made up of friends are more productive too. When one person hits a tough spot, others jump in to take up the slack. “Not my job” doesn’t feel so good when people you care about suffer as a result. And it’s just more fun, so folks want to stay. The vibe is better — and it’s obvious to everyone.

As a leader/manager, it’s more than worth trying to foster that kind of camaraderie. But that doesn’t mean big expensive morale events — those are “benefits” (see above) and fine as far as they go, but in my experience don’t create lasting bonds. Instead, you just need to create space for people to bring more than just their jobs to work. A few ideas:

  • I have never been big on “work/life balance.” I am very big on not sacrificing your family for your job, but that’s different, at least to me. My kids and wife have always been present at work. Family dinners at Microsoft, Halloween trick-or-treating, family-included picnics, and lots and lots of pictures and stories in my office. I wear my interests on my chest in the form of Disney and nerd shirts. One of my favorite office decorations was the “baby wall” we had at HealthVault as so many families were growing.
  • Food and movies are magic for helping people connect. Let team members pick their favorite shows and make monthly use of those big conference room projectors for movie nights. Bring in food … yes from restaurants, but even more homemade. I wasn’t in any way an instigator of the Adaptive potluck club, but I’m (even now) an enthusiastic participant and absolutely love the themed dishes people choose to make.
  • OK, opening myself up here — get a foosball table. Or ping pong, or pop-a-shot, or pinball, or pac-man, or jigsaw puzzles in the break room, or whatever. There is some tough balancing here … only some people respond to these things, and they can become negative time sinks. But if you’re careful about it, they are amazing for creating cross-functional relationships. Host a tournament and play even if (maybe especially if) you suck. Too many places put these away when office space gets tight … that’s exactly the wrong time to do it.

Most of all, be yourself and share yourself. That invitation to connect will mean a lot to a lot of folks.


The last reason people stay at a job is because they are learning useful and/or interesting things. These may be skills that help them advance to their next role — mentoring from more experienced team members, opportunities to grow as an individual contributor or manager, exposure to new technologies and problems. There is real value here; make sure you’re being explicit about it.

Just as often, the learning is domain-based. I often talk about my time at Adaptive as a paid masters-level course in immune system biology and genomics. I learned more sitting in on “journal club” where the scientists presented novel work to each other than I ever did at “real” school, and will always be thankful for the generosity of these folks. That kind of learning has followed me everywhere: word processors in 1993; search engines in 1997; warehouse logistics in 1999; content personalization in 2002; email clients in 2004; healthcare technology in 2007; healthcare policy in 2012.

The Mix

Everybody values these things in different proportion. A common mistake — especially made by company founders for whom the mission tends to dominate (even when that mission isn’t particularly altruistic) — is believing that everyone is motivated by the same things that you are.

If you’ve gone to the trouble to attract and hire great people, you need to do the work to understand what drives each of them. They do not owe you anything beyond a fair exchange of value for the work that they contribute, and they are constantly (even if sometimes unconsciously) doing the math in their heads to decide if it’s a worthwhile trade.

That’s a good thing. When free people choose to collaborate with each other and both sides believe the deal is fair — they can do amazing, wonderful things. No zero-sum games. We really can make the world net better by what we add to it with our minds and muscles.