There was an abundance of networking and small talk at HubSpot's massive INBOUND conference (there were more than 10,000 attendees) in Boston earlier this week. You can bet the question "What do you do?" arose hundreds, if not thousands of times.

But how many times did this particular question--or a snap judgment of the answer--annoy someone? That feeling is probably why a packed room came to hear branding and marketing expert C.C. Chapman give a talk called "Why I Hate The Question of "What Do You Do?" It is the question so many of us refuse to ask and hate to answer. Yet in social settings it never seems to go away. Here's the good news: As a business leader, you can glean several useful lessons from the way this question tends to elicit such negative thoughts.

Here are two of them:

1. None of your employees is wholly defined by a job title. For example, Chapman's business card (see below) reads "Storyteller, Explorer & Humanitarian." The point here is simple: Your employees are more than what they do for your company.

Put another way, what we do for money is only one piece of our layered lives. "If I had ten of my closest friends answer the question of 'What does C.C. do?' I'm betting you'd get a variety of answers," said Chapman in his talk. "Their answers would include being a writer, photographer, speaker, podcaster, volunteer, advocate and father."

Mind you, the takeaway here isn't to edit staid business cards or amend rigid job titles, though that would help. The idea is to treat your employees as more than employees. How can you expect to develop and retain your stars if you're unaware of what they "do" outside of work? As an employer, your covenant with workers needs to transcend the bounds of their on-paper job duties. Your workers will stay with you not only if they're happy with their job per se, but also if they're happy with what their jobs let them do outside of work. 

2. Redefining "What do you do?" can be a superb recruiting question. "Asking 'What do you love to do?' would instantly tell you so much about the candidate," said Chapman, whom I interviewed via email following his INBOUND talk. "If they go off spouting nothing but what they think you want to hear, then they probably aren't a good fit. But if they passionately talk about a mixture of work and personal loves, then they could be the one for you."

Remember, the goal for any organization should be long-term employee retention. Study after study has shown how much money and time you can save by developing and retaining key employees, rather than attracting and hiring new ones. Chapman believes recruits with strong interests outside of work are the best bet for long-term employment.

"I never want to hire people who are only slaves to the grind because they burn out in the long run," he said.

I asked Chapman if he could recall the moment he realized that "What do you do?" had larger implications for the way all of us think about work. "The one memory that I have is having a conversation with some new people at a neighborhood gathering," he said. "I mentioned that I was a writer and the reaction I got was, 'Oh that is nice, but what do you really do?'"

Any early-stage entrepreneur knows this feeling: You honestly reveal what you "do" in a social setting, but the asker seems dissatisfied; what the asker really wanted to know was how you pay the bills. Chapman found a way to channel this frustration.

"I went on to explain that in fact I did a lot of different things," he said. "But most people can't understand how one person could do them all. So I just answer with writer because it is simpler. It certainly wasn't the answer they were expecting and I think it turned them off in a big way, but I didn't care."

Of course, that leaves one more question: Now that Chapman has done a deep dive on "What do you do?", how does he answer the question when it (inevitably) crops up?

"I've learned to answer with something more along the lines of 'I do a lot of different things including...' and go from there," Chapman said. "I love that people's next question is, 'And people pay you for that? Awesome!'"

Published on: Sep 19, 2014