If someone asks what you do, tell them why you do it


It takes just one-tenth of a second for us to make a first impression. And if that initial sizing up is followed by the classic icebreaker “What do you do?” the pressure is really on to keep someone engaged in conversation.

What do you do? will come up countless times in both your personal life and business career. The ironic thing is that if you’re like most people, those five words still cause you to tense up a little bit every time you are asked the question, even though you know it’s coming. No matter how impressive your job title is, how confident you are in your own skin, or how many scenarios you’ve practiced in your mind without even realizing it, the answer never comes out quite the same way. Probably because your mind is too busy processing what you think the person wants to hear, or blocking out the droning response they are making themselves in the initial exchange of pleasantries.

I can’t speak to how you may want to improve your response in personal situations, but what you can be sure of is that shifting the what you do to why you do it as quickly as possible is a prime opportunity to make a lasting business impression.

Stay away from the tendency to go tactical right away.

Here’s a typical introductory scenario that dives too quickly into the weeds:

"So, what do you do?"

I’m an actuary at XYZ Insurance Company.

"Oh, that's interesting. What exactly does that involve?"

"I use a number of different probability charts and statistical modeling techniques to determine the likelihood of liabilities.

Another more simplified and relatable answer might be:

“I assess the risks involved with unplanned events so that people can feel more prepared if those scenarios actually do occur.”

We tend to jump right into the tactics and day-to-day responsibilities of our jobs – and I have to ask myself whether we are trying to measure up to some standard of worthiness or validation.

Corporate alignment: going beyond the what – to why.                                   

The more intriguing question is "Why do you do what you do?"  I tend to ask it more and more in both internal discussions and external engagements. It’s interesting for me to see my colleagues and customers tilt their heads and reflect. But, there is an important reason behind the question – corporate alignment. If we can agree on why, then we can apply our core competency to answer the next obvious series of questions about how we can solve particular problems.

Singing from the same hymnal – not as easy as it sounds

Let me offer an example that reflects the challenges at hand for me personally. I would have to describe myself as an "IT guy." I started my career mounting tapes, wrote software programs for a variety of industries, worked in data base administration and managed DBA teams. I have also designed, staffed and run large IT projects with enterprise-wide ramifications. As a general rule, that’s what we  IT guys do – run projects, deliver applications, house corporate data, manage hardware, secure data, generate operational reports and offer on-demand services to our IT consumers.

IT consumers, on the other hand, consume. With a rigor, I might add. And they are not shy when they cannot get access to what they need, or do not have enough computing resources. While we "IT guys" would prefer the perfect scenario of  organized structure and processes, the rest of the world needs answers to their problems – sooner rather than later.

What does this separation do to our organization?  It makes it sub-optimal.  It causes contention between we and they or us and them.  I was recently with a customer who experienced this very issue.  When I asked the business users the why question, they responded, "We help save lives. By looking at disease factors in children, we're able to determine predictive indicators that, when acted on, can save lives."  When I asked the IT group why they do what they do, they responded, "We build flexible applications so we can easily change web data input screens for our user community, based on new and changing studies."  What IT didn't understand was, the way data was procured – the how– caused major strife with their business counterparts.  Any "flexible change" caused analytical programs to break.  Once we got the IT and non-IT communities aligned as to why they do what they do, changes were made to facilitate better productivity.

The point is that understanding the broader business mission makes it easier for us all to rally together to solve the challenges of the day – offering very different skill sets for the same united purpose.The point is that we all rally together to solve the challenges of the day – offering very different skill sets for the same united purpose.

So, when asked the question of why we do what we do, everyone in the business should have the same answer.  Take, for example, one of the many ways SAS solves problems for the life sciences industry. While IT guys are building the flexible applications to easily change web data input screens for our users based on rapidly changing studies, IT consumers are determining predictive indicators that, when acted on, prevent diseases in children. In both cases, at the highest level, we’re creating software solutions that help save lives.

Analytics: A common denominator that’s anything but common

After a few conversations with someone, I might describe what I do like this:  I’m a Systems Manager in the SAS High Performance Analytics practice. My job has a three-fold emphasis – working directly with our customers in a technical sales support capacity, working with our technical engineers in a technology enablement capacity, and working with our account executives in a sales development capacity.

But for that first, important "What do you do?" I like to borrow from our SAS corporate mission statement because I think it gets to the why in a very relatable way…

“I work for SAS, an analytics software and services company. We help businesses anticipate their next business opportunities and understand how to act on them to drive change. Advanced analytics turns all your data into more useful information so you can solve problems faster.”

When the possibilities associated with that reply really sink in, you could be in for a long conversation.


About Author

Gary Spakes

Enterprise Architecture

As the lead for SAS' America's Enterprise Architecture Practice, Gary focuses on both the technical aspects and business implications involving the SAS High Performance Analytics platform. An IT veteran, Gary leverages his technology background to help organizations alleviate immediate pains, but not compromise long-term initiatives.

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