The DELI System of Finding Career Success

The DELI System of Finding Career Success

Douglas B. Richardson

Do a little career research, and you'll soon run into advice on the importance of "knowing thyself" as part of a successful job search. This advice is definitely important, but in the context of career planning, how exactly do you do it? When it comes to cataloging and prioritizing the forces and factors that will provide lasting career satisfaction, most of us are pretty clueless, which explains why the career management industry thrives.

We know that success and happiness derive from tapping into what we are temperamentally suited to do, and not just what we are capable of doing. The trouble is that most of us lack a "frame of reference" – a manageable starting point – for pinpointing our passions, identifying our incentives, organizing our operative values, defining our drivers, prioritizing our pleasures, and mapping our motivations. Yes, the quest for self-knowledge is an elaborative and iterative process – and it should go on all your life. But where do you start? Is there a spring from which all career rivers ultimately flow?

As a matter of fact, there is. Timothy Butler and James Waldroop, directors of MBA career development at Harvard Business School, wrote an article that talked about DELIsDeeply-embedded Life Interests. Although Butler and Waldroop targeted their DELI article at hiring managers looking to retain motivated talent, you can look at your own DELIs as a first step in your long journey toward career enlightenment.

DELIs are long-held, emotionally-fueled passions. DELIs describe drivers. They do not determine what we are capable of doing or are good at; DELIs drive what kinds of activities satisfy and gratify us. At work, one's DELI's translate into motivation and commitment. They keep us engaged; they keep us from plateauing, burning out or quitting. As Butler and Waldroop put it, you can think of a DELI as a geothermal pool of superheated water. It may rise to the surface in one place as a hot spring and in another as a geyser. But beneath the surface – at the core of the individual – that pool is always bubbling, always seeking expression. What Butler and Waldroop called Job Sculpting is the art of matching people to jobs that allow expression of their DELI's. But the best part is that you don't need to wait for HR to get the ball rolling – you can start to do this for yourself.

  • Aptitudes that Suggest Directions
  • Butler and Waldroop's research identified eight particularly powerful DELIs that tend to bubble up among a large selection of job seekers. Each expresses itself in a short-list of traits, attitudes and favored activities. As you read through them, it may be useful to rate yourself from one to ten on each. But keep mind, they are not mutually exclusive – you can have high scores on several DELIs, not just one.

  • Theory Development and Conceptual Thinking
  • Love to think and talk about abstract ideas. Drawn to theory, concepts, precepts, relationships. Think and speak metaphorically. See patterns and relationships everywhere. Natural strategists and big-picture thinkers. Implementation is less engaging than ideation; love to solve puzzles. Need an explanation for the "why" as well as the "what." Fly at 30,000 feet; love to "sit around and talk smart." The core activity of visionaries, innovators, theorists, idealists, philosophers, designers, academics.

  • Enterprise Control
  • Like/need ultimate decision-making authority; like to "run stuff." Like to be in charge of "making things happen." Often driven to seek roles of control or visibility. Like to make the decisions that shape the direction of a whole organization or team. Naturally seek and assume leadership and ownership. Take on as much responsibility as they can get. Some don't like to run existing operations, but instead prefer to do deals or design structures that shape new enterprises.

  • Managing People and Relationships
  • Enjoy dealing with people, but from an authoritative command and control (parental) role, not as a collaborator or affiliator. Focus more on results than on relationships. Less interested in seeing people grow than in seeing them accomplish business objectives. Often display status and conformity needs: status confers rank and power, conformity assures that the system that empowers remains in power. Generalists who like to organize, motivate and direct others often in known activities and structures. Like to "manage stuff."

  • Quantitative Analysis
  • Excel at "running the numbers." Think numbers are the best way to figure out business metrics and solutions: "if it can't be measured, it can't be managed." Think mathematical activity is fun; like quantitative models, formulas, ratios, etc. Often like to build computer models in order to determine optimal processing or to handle computations, tracking and financial reporting. Even in non-quantitative jobs, still gravitate toward the numbers. Like to find or develop quantitative measures for "soft" activities (HR productivity, planning). Often seen analyzing or interpreting research data.

  • Application of Technology
  • Intrigued by the workings of things. Curious about ways to use technology to solve business problems. Often like to plan and analyze production and operations systems and/or redesign business processes. Read manuals for fun. Computer science majors. Often approach business problems with a "Let's take it apart and figure it out" mind-set. Need to understand how things work; a recipe is not good enough. Technology – its structure and its potential uses (both intended and unconventional) – is inherently interesting. Often are "gear heads" in their hobbies and avocations.

  • Counseling and Mentoring
  • Sometimes called "Humanistic-encouraging." This"enabling" profile loves to teach, guide, develop, nurture others and help them grow and improve. Frequently self-select into direct, hands-on, high-touch roles. May love to see their knowledge "proved" by others' successes; may simply need to be needed. This DELI often goes unexpressed because of job structure, but you see it in community service or volunteerism. Often talk about people, processes, and relationships, less about ideas or data. Tend toward praise, optimism and speaking warmly about the human aspect.

  • Influence Through Language and Ideas
  • Find the process of persuading, expressing or negotiating as enjoyable as that which is expressed or negotiated. The message may matter less than the medium. Love words and converting thoughts succinctly into words. Usually like to write, speak or both – just let them communicate. Enjoy thinking about the audience, thinking about context, point of view, who's listening and why. This DELI may not shape the primary form of one's role or career, but almost always will be instrumental in personal satisfaction.

If you are lucky, one of these DELIs applies to you so well that it qualifies as a fundamental passion, a basket into which you can put all your career eggs, now and forever. Few people are blessed with such laser-like aptitudes, however; most of our "career profiles" combine a mixture of vocational themes. Indeed, Butler and Waldroop's research identified six very common DELI combinations which can be used to successfully define a career path:

  1. Conceptual Thinking and Enterprise Control:
  2. A common combination among natural entrepreneurs – people who want to start things, dictate where an enterprise or project will go, and put their own unique stamp on outcomes. Their motto: "Give me the ball and I'll score."

  3. Enterprise Control and Managing People and Relationships:
  4. People who like both to run the business and manage the people: "When I say jump, you say, 'How high?'"

  5. Quantitative Analysis and Managing People and Relationships:
  6. Financial and finance-related roles, but also like managing people to goals: "If it can't be measured, it can't be managed."

  7. Enterprise Control and Influence Through Language and Ideas:
  8. Common in charismatic leaders and inspirational managers, but also common in sales: "I will show you the way…or at least I'll sell it to you."

  9. Managing People and Relationships and Counseling and Mentoring:
  10. Common in Human Resources, relationship management, service industries, training and development: "I care about you, I value the team, I want us all to win."

  11. Application of Technology and Managing People and Relationships:
  12. Common in "experts" who define themselves in terms of what they know (engineers, accountants, computer experts, etc.) and those who thrive on coordinating the activity of other experts.

You may have noticed that even when these DELIs are accurate, they're still pretty vague on objective-setting details – things like what, where, and how to utilize them. They describe broad motivational characteristics rather than mapping specific courses and directions. But in today's uncertain job market, and with thousands of possible career choices available to you, it can be enormously reassuring to find a solid bedrock on which to start your church, even if there aren't may instructions on how to build the rest.

Butler and Waldroop's eight DELIs cover a lot of ground, but if they somehow miss your mark, you're free to add your own fundamental drivers. Perhaps your DELIs include altruism, or physical activity, or adversarial pursuits. Fine, add 'em in. Your only responsibility is to keep them to a manageable number (few people can fully pursue six or seven core passions) and to keep them firmly in sight – like your personal pole star – at all times.

Given free choice, people will self-select into roles and careers that push their most basic buttons. But complete free choice is rare; our perspectives and plans often are impacted by the opinions of others happy to tell us what we should do or be. Or perhaps a superficially attractive early-career opportunity presents itself – maybe even one that goes against our DELI – that progresses through job, pulling us away from our ideal choices. Or, like today, a huge recession makes simply having a job, any job, more important than personal satisfaction. You must work hard to keep focused on your DELIs when choosing a career.

Knowing your DELIs well is a practical way to push back against career diversions and seductions. And on the flip side, identifying what aren't your DELIs can help you do what doctors call a "rule-out diagnosis." That is, armed with a knowledge of what doesn't float your boat, you can avoid the hassle of exploring career paths that are unlikely to satisfy you. This rule-out approach to career planning can be like the story of the famed sculptor who, when asked how he managed to create his magnificent granite statue of a charging bull elephant, replied: "Simple. Get yourself a huge piece of rock and then chop off everything that doesn't look like an elephant."

A fulfilling career is within your grasp. All you need to do it "chop off" the job types that stand in your way.

Douglas B. Richardson heads The Richardson Group, a nationally recognized leadership development and career management consulting firm in Narberth, PA. Doug earlier was an award-winning columnist for Dow Jones' National Business Employment Weekly and its online successor,, for over 20 years.

Career Topics
Life At Work