Keys to Launching an Extraordinary Career: What Contribution Will You Make?
"People who do well in life understand things that other people don't understand."
A distinct difference exists between what you know and what you understand. You probably know a great many things based on the courses you've taken and what you've learned thus far. Understanding, however, comes mostly from time and experience.
Whether you're entering college, you've just graduated, or you are in the first few years of your professional career, you are gaining valuable experiences that contribute to your lifelong "understanding curve." As you face challenges in your personal life and your academic or professional career, you are beginning to apply what you've learned to situations as they occur. You will make your share of mistakes. If you learn from your mistakes, you will benefit a great deal. If you can learn from the mistakes of others, however, you will leapfrog ahead on the "understanding curve."
Executives, leaders, and superstars in their field have truly "made it" when it comes to professional and personal success. They are at the pinnacle of their careers. Some of their experiences, like mine, span two generations. Their wisdom, however, is timeless, particularly as companies reinforce many of their core values.
Companies are stressing the importance of delivering value to all constituentsnot just stockholders, but also employees, suppliers, and customers. At the same time, companies are vastly different than they were 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Technology has enabled greater connectivity, opening new markets and opportunities while allowing people to work in a number of different ways, from flextime to telecommutingall at a much greater speed. You're the beneficiary of this change. In this day and age, you are leading my generation in utilizing new technology. Who knows what technological inroads will be made in the future that will change the way we work even more!
So what does that mean to you, the college student or young professional? I firmly believe it has everything to do with you, both as you start your career and as you move through the ranks to become a young manager and maybe an executive some day. To do this, you will need not only technical knowledge, but leadership skills as well. The kind of leadership I'm talking about is based on ethical behavior and recognizing the value of everyone who is involved in the organization, including the employees, the customers, and the stockholders. Above all, you must discover and follow your passion, because this is truly what will carry you forward in your career.
Managing Your Career from Day One
People often ask, "What is the secret to being successful?" Some of them, I’m sure, don’t like the answer at first. The best way to manage your career, from Day One, is to focus on the contribution you will make to your employer. In other words, it’s not about you. It’s about what you can do to further the goals of your company or organization. Admittedly, this type of thinking changes the rules of the game from a contest to be won today into a long-term investment in which you are an integral player.
"Wait a minute," you’re probably thinking. "I’m not signing on for the Peace Corps or joining some ‘serve-the-greater-good’ organization. I want to get a job, earn money (preferably lots of it), and get ahead. Isn’t that what I went to college for?"
The short answer is yes and no. You can jump on the fast track, catch the brass ring, climb the ladder, and all the other clichés of achievement. But you still may not be successful. Real success stems from the satisfaction of knowing that your work is important, that what you do makes a difference. This runs contrary to what you see on television and read in the press—that success is all about becoming the survivor as a result of climbing over, beating up, outmaneuvering, and manipulating your competition. That’s not how it is in the real world. Effective businesses are collaborative, cooperative, and team-oriented. If you think the way to win is to annihilate the competition, you’re the one who will ultimately be the loser.
Consider the advice of one of the most accomplished executives who ever occupied a corner office: John C. "Jack" Bogle, founder and former chairman of The Vanguard Group. He outlined for young professionals what he calls his two rules for success: "Rule Number 1: Get out of bed in the morning. Get up and get going. Go through the day, and do the right things. Work hard at your job. Do everything you’re asked to do and more. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen ten years from now; focus on getting through the day. I never thought about wanting to be a VP. I was a one-day guy."
"Rule Number 2," he added, "is to repeat Rule Number 1 all over again the next day." 1
Human nature being what it is, however, most people tend to focus too much on the near future and emphasize their goals and objectives to get a better job, to get a promotion, to get a raise, and so forth. Most people fail to understand that their ability to make a meaningful and measurable contribution will distinguish them within a company or organization. The goal, therefore, is to apply yourself—your talent, energy, and ideas—to accomplishing the company’s goals. Then you will have the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference, and you will greatly increase your chances of achieving your personal objectives as well. It will be a win-win for you and for the company.
Putting others first, ahead of individual accomplishment or self-aggrandizement, is a valued quality in all endeavors, but it’s rarely found in some. In professional sports, from women’s soccer to the National Football League, in which a few high achievers are elevated to superstar status, it’s rarer still. One of the exceptions is Greg Maddux of the Chicago Cubs, a low-key man of high accomplishment, including becoming only the 22nd major-league pitcher to reach 300 career victories. A future Hall of Famer who has won four National League Cy Young Awards, Greg is a star in the world of professional athletics, which you may think is far removed from the corporate arena. Yet, the same attributes of excellence that he embodies are what make someone successful in the business world: working hard, studying the situation, analyzing the alternatives, and always looking to make a contribution to the team’s greater good.
Greg’s philosophy for putting the team first applies to young people starting their careers: "I realize that without the other 24 guys on the team, I wouldn’t have a job. If the team does well, you’re most likely doing well." In the corporate world, as in sports, hotshots exist who are clearly most interested in their own gains, even if it’s at the expense of the team. From his perspective, Greg has the following advice, which applies equally to the corporations and the sporting teams: "You can’t control the efforts that others are putting in. The important thing is that the people around you see that you are doing everything that you can. So be as good as you can be. Remember, talk is cheap, so don’t tell them—show them."2
By emphasizing the team first—whether in baseball or at a company—you put your focus on the greater good of the organization. Admittedly, when you are just starting out it may be tricky to identify just how you can contribute to the organization’s larger goals. It’s not about trying to make a big splash or getting to the next level quickly. Rather, it’s about understanding the organization’s goals and aligning your efforts with them based on your own knowledge, skills, and expertise—even your personality.
As you look to your professional future, ask yourself: What contribution do you want to make to everyone—not just to those you think are important? If you’ve already started working, take a look around you. What can you do for others? Can you give a hand to someone in your department occasionally, such as helping figure out a project? Does someone need coaching on a presentation? Can you help him with a technical problem with his computer? These are tangible ways in which you can contribute to the greater good and not expect anything in return.
As Jack Bogle advises, "Try to contribute to the knowledge, happiness, and welfare of the people around you—your colleagues, those who work for you, and those with whom you work. This is all ‘bread-and-butter’ stuff about living a good life and doing what it is you’re supposed to be doing."3
This attitude of making a contribution is not only altruistic; it’s also strategic. Robert E. Kelley, Ph.D., who teaches at Carnegie Mellon’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration and consults with major companies, has studied the attitudes and behaviors of "star performers," who are also the subject of his book How to Be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed. From Day One, he advises, young professionals need to establish themselves as willing to help others and make a contribution to their team, their department, and their company.
"It’s important to help out others early on, in particular those people you are going to be working with, either in your work group or those who are next to your work group," Robert said. "This sends a number of messages—first of all, that you are a ‘giver.’ It also tells people that you know how the game is played, that work is not a solo activity."
Those who don’t understand these unwritten rules of the workplace may be in for a rude awakening when, at some point, they have to turn to others for help or direction. "The first time they go to the network, they are going to get labeled as a ‘taker,’ as opposed to a ‘giver,’" he added.
Even a new employee without much expertise can establish a reputation as a helpful person by sincerely offering assistance to others. "It’s allowing other people to offload some work onto you when they are very busy," Robert continued. "All you have to say is, ‘I can see you are under the gun. Can I do anything to help you out?’ That is the first step. The second step is to think about all the things that you know about, which may or may not be directly related to your work, but which could be useful to someone else."4
Your contribution is not defined only by what you do. It’s also impacted by your attitude and how you treat others. Are you a know-it-all trying to impress people with your knowledge, or are you a respectful listener trying to gain understanding? You can’t fake this to win people over. You have to believe in making a contribution for it to become the foundation of your actions and behaviors. Over time, it will be the unconscious influence in how you approach any situation. On a conscious level, it will also help you make career choices that may be against the grain, but that could lead you to better opportunities in the future. Some of those opportunities may be at companies that initially appear to be less than desirable.
Pamela Forbes Lieberman, former president and chief executive officer of TruServ (now known as True Value Company), a cooperative principally of hardware stores, spent time with her team turning around this quality company that has faced difficulties and challenges. She recognized that this situation provided a unique opportunity for young professionals.
"We’d bring people in and say, ‘Here are all our issues. But this is where we’re going.’ Then we’d invite them to be part of the team that gets us there," Pamela explained. "We’d say to them, ‘Won’t it be exhilarating to see where we’ll go from here?’ For these young professionals, it is a résumé-building opportunity."5
These opportunities may not be the most glamorous jobs. They may involve a turnaround situation, or a company that new management is trying to revive or take in a different direction. Being at the company at that particular point in time, you will be part of the team that turns the organization around. Your payback in the process may not be the immediate satisfaction of a fancy title at a hot company. You’ll have to wait for your gratification, which in time will make it all the better.
"I was given some advice that changed my life and my career, which was to follow your compass, not your clock. Choose the company, not the title and not the money," said Andrea Jung, chairman of Avon Products.6
"That advice changed who I am, where I am. I did not always take the job with the most money. I always took the job because in my heart I knew it was the company and the purpose of that company that I believed in," added Andrea, who ranks as Number 3 on the Wall Street Journal’s 2004 "Top 50 Women to Watch."7