The Great Resignation’, as McKinsey and others have dubbed the wave of resignations (or threats thereof) that have become commonplace over the COVID-19 pandemic, hints at widespread existential angst in the workplace, and a search for purpose that goes beyond the next promotion or raise.
George Koshy, a 2010 MBA alumnus of the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), has increasingly encountered it among friends and colleagues in his day job as leadership coach with Siemens AG in Germany. Out of the blue, says Koshy, people have handed in their notices as they seek “something bigger”. He has also come across it among his own clientele as co-founder of house of Thinking (hoT), a think house specialising in bringing out the best in individuals, teams and organisations.
The motives behind these mass resignations – nearly 20 million Americans have called it a day at their workplaces since April 2021 alone, according to one estimate – have sparked heated debate. Some commentators have put it down to the simple forces of supply and demand – a greater demand for especially mid-career professionals, who recorded higher-than-usual resignation rates in the US over 2020 and 2021, have generated new vacancies. Opportunity may be one thing, but McKinsey also points to factors beyond the standard economics of changing jobs. Their research shows more and more employees are citing factors like being valued by their manager and needing a sense of belonging.
Even South Africa, a country that shed millions of (mostly low-paying) jobs over 2020 and 2021, has not been spared, according to research by Remchannel. The October 2021 ‘Salary and Wage Movement’ survey showed that, at 60%, resignation was the leading reason why employees left their companies over April and October last year.
As an executive, team and board coach, Koshy has plenty of opportunities to engage with this widespread existential crisis, and says that reasons to leave a job are complex. “Over the pandemic, in addition to thinking of how to grow further, people have started to ask themselves – am I doing (and achieving) what I really want to be doing (and achieving)?”
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
Koshy knows more about the above question from his own life. He’d gone into mechanical engineering more by social convention than personal conviction, he admits. “In India, the chances of one becoming an engineer or a doctor are very high”, he shares. A decent footballer praised by teammates and football coaches for his intuitive leadership, he had imagined a life in sport.
After working as a consultant in India, the US and Germany, he embarked on his MBA at the UCT GSB. “Typically, people sign up for an MBA in pursuit of either vertical or horizontal growth”, says Koshy. The former is when they are looking to move into more senior, better-paid positions in their own or another company. Horizontal growth is when they are hoping to expand their résumés and explore other work areas of interest (and hopefully with a better pay). Koshy fell into the latter category and in his own pursuit of purpose, he found himself being steered towards the direction of people development – particularly leadership. “I knew that there was something missing in my corporate life beyond the excellent experience and remuneration, and the MBA journey helped me to uncover my purpose.” Recalling this reflective process, he says: “It was initially uncomfortable, but with time I found that I was getting more and more comfortable with being uncomfortable. I had embarked on this journey realising that doing things the comfortable way was not giving me fulfilment.”
No magic wand; rather, improve awareness and action
Post-MBA, Koshy worked as a strategy consultant. However, inspired to get into the field of leadership, he earned an executive coaching qualification in 2013. After a short stint at the Global CEO’s office, Koshy’s quest was answered as he moved into a leadership coaching role in 2016. In 2021 he completed his advanced coaching qualification in team, board and systemic coaching. He considers himself blessed to have had the opportunity to support and shape the leadership journeys of top executives and teams across the globe.
While there is no magic wand to be waved when facing a crisis in purpose, Koshy does have a few tips for those navigating these bumpy waters.
- “Listen to yourself – our bodies are constantly providing us information. As an example, if your current job does not feel good to you – then there should be a reason! In addition to listening to your mind, what is your heart and gut telling you?”
- “Take ownership – one reason many fear discovering their purpose is that this would mean actually doing something about it! Many would rather blame others or circumstances than themselves. But if they are honest about seeking purpose, they would believe more in themselves, and own the responsibility for finding purpose.”
- “Be determined – finding and chasing purpose is not something one should do half-heartedly – it is indeed a sustained pursuit with intent!”
- “Start steering – once the purpose has been identified, make first steps towards the new direction. If it requires you to learn something new – do it. It is worth the time, money and effort!”
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided many – Koshy included – with the opportunity to appreciate the fragility of life: “Make time to shape your life now as tomorrow is not a guarantee for anyone!” he concludes.