As a fresh-faced university graduate I was eager to find a shortcut to fast track my way up the corporate ladder. Though being from a rural background, the only person around who had achieved distinction in a major organisation was my imposing great uncle Gus -a second world-war veteran who reached an executive level at one of Australia’s largest industrial companies.
So one Sunday lunch I decided to strike. Strategically picking my moment after the lamb roast had been devoured and the apple pie was safely in our bellies, I managed to corner Gus in the lounge room alone. After some idle chitchat about his illustrious yet now long-retired career, I plucked up the courage to ask, “So Uncle Gus what’s the secret to getting ahead in your career?”
The sparkle in his eye evidenced the compliment I had paid him. And you could see his still agile mind reminisce back to a time when he felt that same eagerness one has at the start of their career where options and opportunity abound. With little hesitation required for his almost ninety year-old brain to sift through the thousands of possible answers – he gave me this gem:
“It’s simple. Do the jobs no one else wants to do.”
At the time I was a little underwhelmed to be honest. I was hoping more for something like “go abroad and learn”, or “invest in continual education”. Even a simple “work harder than your boss” would have satisfied my hunger for an insider’s tip to miss a few rungs on that daunting ladder of promise. But seriously, was my youth about to be stolen from me, enduring year after year doing the jobs no one else wanted to do?
Yet twenty-something years later this simple career building principle has become part of my business DNA and has helped frame my career in four distinct ways:
1. DOING THE UNPOPULAR JOBS MYSELF: The few years where I did work for another organisation I always embraced doing the jobs no one else wanted to do and smiled inwardly, safe in the knowledge that the karma it built would one day be repaid. I recall landing in the UK as a 24 year-old and having to take a role as a filing clerk despite having been a manager back in Australia. To replace the monotony I set myself the challenge of becoming the UK’s fastest filing clerk, which saw me photocopier hopping to make up time and running up the stairs rather than waiting for elevators in my mission for speed. Soon the tasks that took my predecessor a week to complete were finished in less than a day, and yes, the ‘powers that be’ wanted to know why.’
2. LEADING BY EXAMPLE: As leaders we often delay doing the tasks no one else wants to do such as calling an irate customer, giving someone bad news or finishing that laborious proposal on the weekend. Leaders who are prepared to lead by example and complete these tasks themselves (at least initially) gain respect from their employees and create a can-do culture where a strong work ethic is the norm.
3. LAUNCHING BUSINESSES IN UNPOPULAR INDUSTRIES: When seeking avenues for a new business I tend to steer clear of the latest crazes as these areas have usually been oversubscribed. Rather, I have sought out the less glamorous opportunities given they invariably present the least competition, the highest margins and best possibilities to disrupt. During the Dot-com Bubble I was informed by a prominent venture capital firm they wouldn’t invest in our call centre business because it wasn’t ‘sexy’ enough. Two months later, every ‘sexy’ business they invested in had crumbled and our business took off -no longer requiring investor funds and growing to what would have resulted in a thirty-fold increase in their contribution.
4. PROMOTING EMPLOYEES WHO GIVE BEFORE THEY GET: I have always attempted to go out of my way to promote and recognize staff who have an inclination towards tackling tough or inglorious tasks without complaint or promise of reward. I have passed over many a self-promoter, over-resuméd, ‘suck-up to the boss’ type, in favour of those who are prepared to invest before they are given glory, titles or rewards. And it is in the backing of these types of employees that I attribute to the enormous growth our companies achieved against the odds.
Whether you are looking to get ahead in your corporate job or launch your own business, remember this sage piece of advice from Great Uncle Gus – “Do the jobs no one else wants to do”. If that means chasing up overdue debtors, making a dreaded phone call or delivering some bad news, do it today not tomorrow. And if you are already doing the jobs no one else wants to do then allow yourself a self-indulgent smile amid the drudgery, knowing you could be one mundane task away from a view higher up the ladder.
Serial Entrepreneur. Founder Entreprenaissance Movement.