The Best Work Environments Are Those That Demand Excellence Yet Provide Support

At almost every turn, I have been extremely lucky to be in settings where I feel constantly challenged and excellence is demanded, but I am also earnestly nurtured and supported. I was recently reflecting on this seeming oxymoron, and this thought process lead me to John, my manager at my first job after college. John perpetually found ways to keep me engaged and taking on new endeavors in a structured, corporate environment – an environment that did not always reward thinking outside of one’s job description and one where a less astute manager would not have led me to do so. Yet John constantly took chances on me and expected excellent outcomes. At the same time, working for him I loved striving for ever-higher, potentially unreachable goals because I knew he had my back. More than once I walked into his office, told him I was in a bind or didn’t know how something would get done, and we would problem solve and make it happen together. On the flip side, a number of times I walked into his office and told him what I was able to accomplish and we would just as earnestly celebrate together.

Another way John expected excellence while providing support was by actively coaching me. I remember one conversation about three months after I’d started working for him. I was 21 years old and in my first full-time job. We had a lovely chat about different types of people and how things get done via internal politics. He used personal examples about his own strengths and shortcomings and those of his wife, whom I admired very much. It was not until three years later, when I was in business school and taking a leadership class that I realized how he had been advancing my growth during that conversation – gently but frankly pointing out specifics in my personality that I could use to my advantage or might need to finesse to be effective in my career. Again, he had very high expectations of me, but he would help me reach them, and I always sensed that.

I am currently working with a client that strives to engender this same type of environment, and I love what I’m seeing. They hire only the best, demanding excellence and perpetual growth from their employees in a work environment with a competitive edge. But, at the same time, they deliberately work to foster an environment of support, of nurturing and of balance. As I reflect on my own personal experience, this is an environment where people can thrive and do their best, from a corporate financial services firm to a nonprofit organization.