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Goals, Ambition, and the Greater Good

All of us have goals and ambition. Focusing on the greater good doesn’t mean you don’t care if you ever get promoted or receive a raise in pay. Of course you have ambition and want to get ahead! But like much in life, this requires a balance. You can focus on the greater good, helping your company achieve its goals, while availing yourself of opportunities that will also help advance your career. The key is what comes first. If you lead with your own ambition, so that everything you do is about you, you’ll short-circuit your own success.

Warren Batts has enjoyed an impressive career. He has led numerous companies, including Premark and Tupperware as CEO, and he has served on the boards of 14 major public companies. After working for a few years, he finished college at 29 and received an MBA in 1963. He took his first CEO post in 1967. That’s a fast track by anybody’s standards. So how did he do it?

Warren had goals and ambition, but he kept them in check by focusing first on what he could do at the organization. "Remember, people are much more willing to help you succeed if ambition isn’t dripping from every pore. We all have ambition, but there are people who spend every single moment thinking of themselves and how is this going to help them get ahead," Warren remarked. "With people like that, the organization usually rises up and prevents them from getting ahead or finds a way to slow them down. So if you are always worried about the next step, and you’re more interested in your image, position, competition, and one-upmanship than in making a contribution, the whole organization will go to work to try to block your way."8

One of the most effective ways to keep a rampant ego and running-away ambition in check is to put your emphasis on your boss, your colleagues, or, if you’re a new manager out of graduate school, your direct reports. Making others look good (especially your boss) and helping others do their jobs will increase the impact you make and will get you positive notice.

Welcome to a New World

Young professionals leaving the insular world of academics for their full-time job may have some difficulty with this concept. Students naturally compete with each other, whether in the classroom or on the playing field. At the same time, the collegiate environment is supportive of the individual. If you want to try on an idea for size, college is the place to do it. Individual expression and deviating from the norm are not only tolerated, but also expected.

Not so in the business world, where homogeneity is valued. Certainly some business environments, such as entertainment and advertising, prize creativity and individuality. But in most cases, businesses look for employees who can fit in and help further the company’s objectives. Your new employer won’t want to hear how you’re going to change the whole organization on the first day! The only variance from the norm that companies typically welcome is in the ability to exceed expectations (although limits exist there too).

The business world, compared with the college campus, is an alien environment. When you’re in college, you are among a student cohort that is usually internationally diverse and embraces a variety of thoughts, opinions, and ideas. On the other hand, the student body tends to be around the same age.

In the business world, the international diversity may still be present, but usually on a far more limited scale. The same goes for the variance of thoughts, opinions, and ideas. On the other hand, the age range can span 30 or even 40 years. That’s usually a big adjustment for young professionals, whose first job may be in a cubicle next to someone who is the same age as their parents. Your supervisor may be someone who is 10 years older than you, while your peers range from roughly the same age to 20 years older. (As you move up the ranks and become a new manager with direct reports who are older than you, it’s even more of a challenge, as we’ll discuss in later chapters.) Some of the people you’ll meet in the work environment will have a Ph.D., and others will not have a college degree at all.

How can you work with people who have so little in common with you on the surface? The answer is simple: by taking "you" out of the equation and focusing on the common goal of accomplishing the organization’s goals and objectives. In the business world, you will be measured by the work you do. That is how your boss will evaluate you and, equally important, how your peers will look at you. As a new employee it’s more important that your colleagues accept you than you accept them. At the same time, they won’t accept you unless you accept them.

"I am really a big believer that you have to have a whopping dose of humility at every level, in the corner office and when you first come into an organization. It goes a long way," said Andrea Jung, chairman of Avon Products. "One of the ways of demonstrating this is to show that you are committed to learning. At the same time, you need to demonstrate that you are skilled and that you are working hard. But you also have to be open to reinventing yourself all the time. Even today as CEO I have to learn new skills and take it upon myself to commit to continual self-transformation."9

As a new employee fresh out of college or as a new manager out of graduate school, you will have your share of challenges. Among them is to learn from a diverse group of colleagues. Some will be less educated than you but will know far more than you.

The most dramatic examples are ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) students. Upon graduation, they enter the military as officers, even though they are younger and have less experience in uniform than many others. As these young officers prepare to take charge, the most important people they have to win over are the non-commissioned officers (NCOs). They are almost always older than the ROTC-trained officers and not as well educated. But they have twice as much power because they have "local knowledge." They know how things work and how things get done.

In business, a few people usually exist who are the civilian equivalent of the NCOs, usually a long-term employee who knows everybody but never shows up on any organizational chart. But if you ask your more experienced colleagues, you’ll quickly find out to whom you need to talk to get what you need or to accomplish something. It may be Marian in Human Resources or Bill in Purchasing. These are the people you need to know and whose respect you must earn.

While graduate students may take a job as a new manager, most undergraduates will go into the workforce as entry-level employees or trainees. It can be an abrupt shift in perspective from where you were in college. You may be coming from an environment in which you were at the top of your class or the recipient of leadership honors. But as the new employee, you’ll be the trainee. If you walk around with your degree on your sleeve, you’ll surely be miserable in your new environment. You won’t do yourself any favors with your colleagues, either. If you adopt the attitude that this is an opportunity to learn how things are done in the organization, you will get to work more quickly and start making a contribution.

Jack Gray, former CEO at Hart Schaffner & Marx, has succinct advice for young professionals today. "It’s so simple. You just work hard. Yes, you have to make sure that you dress the way you should; that’s an important detail. But the most important thing is to convince everybody that you’re not just interested in the money; you’re interested in doing the job." He recalled an incident when there was a delay on the holding platform at the factory, and he asked a young manager to go investigate. "You could tell by looking at him that he thought this was beneath his dignity. That finished him," Jack added. "You have to convince people that you are a ‘1,000-percent’ person—that you are willing to pay any normal price for success. Mostly that means having an attitude that is not about wondering whether you’re going to be promoted or get a raise. It’s the attitude of ‘I’ve got a job to do.’"11

The willing attitude of a contributor also means leaving behind the past glories of your college days for the humbling reality of learning the ropes as a new employee. Consider the story of Jonathon who came from a prestigious East Coast family, was a Princeton undergraduate, and received his MBA. After graduation, he decided to go into retailing. His first job was for a large department store chain working in women’s ready-to-wear, a very challenging department that had fast moving inventory. Jonathon knew he had a lot to learn, from purchasing to merchandising.

To succeed, Jonathon had to forget all about his lofty educational background and get down to what he had to learn to do his best on the job. Along the way, he had some interesting life lessons as well. Three weeks after he took the job, his wife called him at the store. "I’d like to speak with Jonathon So-and-So," she told the operator. The operator searched, but couldn’t find his name in the company directory. Connected with the women’s ready-to-wear department, Jonathon’s wife spoke with two people there. Neither of them recognized Jonathon’s name. Exasperated, she began to describe him. "He’s about five-foot-ten, dark hair with glasses. He’s new at the company. He’s in the trainee department."

"Oh!" one of the store employees said. "You mean Johnny, the new kid! I’ll get him."

Like Jonathon, you go from a world in which you were pursued by recruiters and recognized for your academic achievement and leadership ability to being the "new kid." This may last a year or at least several months. You’ll know when this initial phase is over: when you begin to make a contribution that others can recognize and respect. (As for Jonathon, learning this lesson has paid off handsomely. He went on to enjoy a very successful career in retailing and more recently as an entrepreneur.)

Your personal mosaic is composed of many pieces, large and small, shiny and dull, smooth and rough. All of them are valuable. From the many pieces, an image is formed, which is the composite of your life experience, both personal and professional. Each piece, or tile, that is set in place becomes a permanent fixture. It is very hard to chisel out and replace these pieces. Therefore, be highly selective in the tiles you choose. Throughout your life, you will add to this mosaic, a living work of art that reflects who you are and how you have come to understand the world around you. It is a reminder of where you have been, as well as a map to guide you where you are going.

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