Who matters?

Jan 16, 2024
Caring for those you help.

Being a professional means you have an effect on people. My lawyer clients who specialise in corporate law love the intensity of working with CEOs and investment bankers on transactions that change the course of a business and everyone involved with it. My designer clients love the idea that people relish walking through the spaces they design. My health care clients sustain, across an entire career, a passion for restoring people to health. Often they define success purely by the impact they have on a particular group of people that matter to them. Who are those people for you? 

The traditional answer

It used to be that professionals had to focus on people who: 

  • Had a need you can fulfil
  • Can pay
  • Are willing to pay

That definition makes sense from a transactional point of view, where it doesn't matter who they are beyond this. Today, this looks cynical and produces the odd effect of working hard to finish transactions with people you don't really care about. The natural outcome is that they in turn sense this and don't really care about you, so will shift loyalty easily, which throws you back into the marketing hamster wheel. 


Sustained success that's measured by more than money is driven by caring. Where I see professionals thrive in the long term, across three or four decades as a partner, they are very clear about who is important to them. People who matter evoke their curiosity, energy, focus and innovation. 

They don't just care about 'the client'. The truly high impact professionals see through the client to the client's clients or customers. The whole point of being a professional is to enable the client to be better at delivering their value to the world through better systems, products, services and delivery vehicles. Once you can demonstrate that you have this clearly in mind, your value becomes obvious. You are aligned and you find yourself anticipating rather than simply responding to the immediate client's needs. 

Defining who matters

Caring is a personal as well as a professional issue. No matter how 'objective' you try to be, eventually your energy will go in two directions: 


You understand and feel for the ultimate beneficiary of your professionalism.


You want to know more about them. 

Behind these two factors there's usually an intensely important personal story that explains why they became a professional. My clients' answers have included the following: 

  • I was poor. 
  • I saw my father suffer an injustice that wrecked our happiness. 
  • I saw my mother frustrated in using the talents that I find I've inherited from her. 
  • I saw someone in action and immediately knew I wanted to do that. 
  • At school I was naturally good at something but enjoyed something else: I now combine them.

Each of these has the seed of empathy, to assuage a hurt when you know, in your body, what it feels like. Or the seed of curiosity, to delve into a mystery, and to get the adrenaline rush of solving a problem. I've known mathematicians, artists, psychologists, marketers, lawyers and doctors use almost precisely the same language to describe this initial motivating moment. 

In other words, they are seeking to help a younger version of themselves. 

How do you get to them? 

The beauty of a well-chosen profession is that it is precisely set up to deliver the outcome that you find satisfying beyond any rational analysis. The money's nice but just marker of value: the status is nice but just a marker of your effectiveness; the applause is nice but just a reflection of the almost physical 'click' in your brain you experience when you hit the mark. 

The delivery process matters. It's different for each person. When you reflect on your delivery process: 

  • Does it fix a deficit? 
  • Does it enable others to be more effective?
  • Does it create something new?
  • Does it give you feedback of success when you need it?
  • Does it augment your contribution or hinder it?
  • Does it get through to your intended beneficiary effectively?

For example, if a new role means it takes two years to know whether you made a difference but you've usually clinched an outcome in weeks in previous roles, you could find yourself feeling adrift. In this case you need a frequent outcome as a navigation marker for your efforts. 


Over time, you change. You develop new insights into the world, new capabilities and new measures of what's important. This means your important people, those you care about, also shifts. This group may narrow down to those who suffer most, or broaden out to a wider population that has become more visible to you. 

Your growth also means you value your own work differently. As you become more comfortable with longer timeframes and bigger processes, you accept longer term results despite short term setbacks. We don't always see this developing. A gradual change may reveal itself in a moment when you feel or act differently. 

The test of this, and a way to stay on the front foot, is to reflect on the sources of value that matter to you. How would you assess the relative significance of the following aspects of your professional impact? 

  • Importance to those who matter to you, measured their way. 
  • Relevance to their situation, as they have evolved over time or their issues have changed.
  • Engagement, as you work more on the system than with individuals. 
  • Complexity that you can embrace while resolving it.
  • Range of impact beyond your immediate client. 

These issues are sharp, painful and confronting towards the end of a career phase (especially 'retirement'). The world can be swift in deciding you are not relevant. However, when you know where you stand, you can craft a new direction for yourself. You can dive into more complex issues, engage more deeply with a group of clients or craft a new offering to address newly significant problems. 

Why bother? 

It is possible to have a successful professional career, caring about nobody but yourself. That track brings its own tragedies as well as obvious rewards. 

The rewards for delivering your talent to those who matter to you are deep. Successful professionals are very clear that their talent has an impact on specific people. 

  • People they admire. 
  • People they understand.
  • People they like. 
  • People who are close and well known.
  • People who are distant and fascinating.
  • People who make the world better. 

When you have a career spent doing work you enjoy and are good at, for people like this, you're able to turn to me and say, 'It's worth it'. 

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