Isn’t it amazing how words change their meaning (or acceptable use) over time? Going ‘viral’ is a famous one, although the original meaning has made a comeback! Another popular one these days is ‘impact’… When I was growing up, impact conjured up more of an image of a collision as in ‘brace for impact’ or the late 90’s movie about an asteroid heading for Earth: Deep Impact.
Nowadays it also refers to the effect we have – what we might have referred to before as ‘making a difference’, ‘making a mark’ or ‘leaving a legacy’. It’s closely related to purpose & meaning and self-actualisation (in Maslow’s hierarchy). Purpose has become far more important over recent decades!
Last month, I asked my LinkedIn connections what drives them in their careers, and the response was unusually vigorous, with some questioning why the LinkedIn poll only allowed them to choose one option?! Around 40% chose ‘having an impact’ as their top driver (more than I was expecting!), with the other options being ‘earning a living’, ‘making more money’ and ‘growing my expertise’. And, as ‘impact’ can mean very different things to each of us, I thought it would be good to explore it in more detail – hence this article.
Thanks to those of you who shared your perspectives with me. Without your views this article wouldn’t have been possible. Read more to see the wide-ranging reflections on impact from various professionals globally, at different career stages too. Would you add anything?
At its simplest, impact is about influencing something so that it shifts course (ideally in a positive and value-adding way), leading to concrete changes because of your contribution. And, there are naturally many dimensions to this… Some of those areas below:
Affecting other people came through very strongly, as expected. For example, beyond personal gain, “to consider what I do and why I do what I do and how it can benefit others as well – either directly or indirectly”. Leaving something behind in others’ lives (including their careers), “leaving people in a better place/position than you found them” and leading to a “positive change in people's lives, either in their work or their quality of life more generally”. One particularly memorable description was an aim to “see more smiles” (as an indication of improving culture). “Doing work that contributes to a positive outcome on people and/or the planet” and “delivering solutions that are useful and meaningful in people's lives” were other responses in this category.
Another theme was recognition or “being heard”. One said that when others recognise your work, it means that it was impactful at least to them. Another commented on the importance of “having your views considered/weighed even if ultimately discarded”.
The effects on the organisations we work for came up too: “seeing what we do can make difference to the organisation”. Quantifying the results of our efforts in the organisation was mentioned (such as training 25 individuals or automating 4 reports). Another referred to a financially beneficial impact on the entity, improving processes and driving efficiencies. “I want to feel like the actual work I’m doing makes a real impact to the company i.e. I’m not just a number or a cog in some machine.”
The Nature of the Work
Many specific examples were used to illustrate impact practically, and I list some here – you’ll note how closely they are tied to the purpose of the organisation and/or role:
To me, it’s generating employment opportunities and creating an environment of growth and progress around me... My aim is to help people around me identify their essential special gift and put it to greatest possible use for others (and hence themselves too).”
The impact on society is another important element: a “real social impact on the wider community/country”. For example: Helping people “to live a life they deem to be a success by creating solutions that get people out of poverty and keep them out of poverty, enabling generations to be financially resilient and healthy, and creating platforms that can connect people with opportunities that can unlock ability to earn or earn more and access affordable solutions.” Another individual described it as follows: “my work has a positive impact on society beyond just protecting a company’s profits and making me a paycheck”.
Asking “how is what I’m doing helping the industry?” was suggested too. Examples given here include “increasing financial inclusion (to almost every adult in my country, which banks had failed to achieve for a long time)”, “being a voice of expertise even beyond my place of employment e.g. a thought leader on LinkedIn or article writer” and “[my passion] about the work I do drives me to work harder and in turn I hope to bring innovation and products to the industry that will add value”.
Knowing who you are
One person also emphasised the importance of knowing your unique skills and value in order to have an impact. He said it’s about “becoming a unique team player with a deeper understanding of your role, character, personality and capabilities”. And, “what you as an individual bring to the table, how you build & maintain synergistic and harmonious relationships that contribute towards achieving positive results.”
Learning, Challenge and more
Learning and challenge came up too, including “learning something new daily or almost daily” and doing work that challenges you. The aim and reach of the role relates to this i.e. “are we solving real and everyday problems that affect a significant size of the population?”
Another person defines impact herself as “value addition in such a way that my work speaks for me, hence creating an impact on my peers and clients for the quality of work that I do”. Leading others was also seen as a way to have a positive impact on the people you work with, “mentorship being a big part of that”.
The effects of our work on our colleagues was referenced often, including:
Impact is a legacy strongly tied to the foundation or philosophy of ‘human purpose’, which will continue to live long after one has passed on. [It’s] directly attributable to what [you have] contributed and accomplished in making a difference in the world... collective efforts are what make the greatest success stories in history.”
I wrap this article up with a perspective on how our definitions of impact can change as we progress with our careers i.e. what we view as our impact at each point. “As an analyst, I was focused on improving the process to make it more efficient and provide better insight. As a manager/director, my impact was on helping my team improve: building skills to build better models, communicate better and develop as leaders. As an executive, my impact is on leadership, building a diverse talent pipeline, and building pathways for that talent to grow in and outside the organisation. When our responsibility grows, our impact shifts from impacting a product, to impacting people, and then impacting the company, and then what we can do for the industry or our profession.”
Thank you again to Anchal, Banele, Courtney, Dhairya, Edgar, Eliud, Elri, Eric, Henrica, Ivan, Jac, Jan-Daniël, Jasmina, Kenosi, Laszlo, Lindiwe, Maurice, Mayukh, Michael, Monica, Mothathe, Nathanael, Raunak, Shantel, Sirius, Thabo, Thomas, and Vanessa for sharing your personal definitions of impact with me. I haven’t shown your full names in this article or attributed specific comments to you as I didn’t explicitly ask your permission to quote you. However, if you want your full name shown, please send me a message on LinkedIn, or comment below. And, dear reader, if you want to add further thoughts on what impact means to you (in a career context), please do.