There’s an old observation that if Galileo or Newton could time travel forward to our century they would be absolutely lost. Black holes? Relativity? Quantum physics? Today’s science would look like magic or worse, gibberish. They’d have to spend years just trying to catch up.
On the other hand, if Julius Caesar suddenly appeared in Washington or New York—he’d be at home in no time. Swap that toga for an Armani, take a few English lessons, and he’s on his way to the top.
Surviving in organizations is an ancient and very human skill. There’s nothing scientific about building careers. However, the techniques needed to rise to the top are not innate. In most cases they must be learned and perfected over time.
As professionals who have worn many hats in the business world, we have had the opportunity to learn and study the basic principles of career building. Not that we claim to have invented or discovered anything. Like everyone else, our careers were built on insights gathered from friends, mentors, bosses, books, and even competitors.
Every successful business career can be traced back to having a solid platform. And that platform stands on four pillars.
Pillar 1. Multiple bosses bring multiple opportunities
Do you like having a boss? Would you like to have more? That’s not a silly question. Say your answer is no. Your secret goal is to be a dictator and move people around like little figures. Perhaps you should take up chess. Your pieces will do exactly as you wish. You’ll win or you’ll lose—and by yourself. For some people that’s fine.
We like working with people. One of the best things about working within an organization is that you can have multiple bosses. Not only your direct manager. We define a “boss” as anyone you can learn from or help out. When you look at it that way, sure your direct manager is a boss, but so is your CEO and many of your colleagues. And don’t forget your clients! If they’re not a boss, who is?
Once you understand that a boss is not necessarily an ogre but someone who can open doors for you, you’ll be able to identify the people inside and outside of your organization who can help you on your career path.
Pillar 2. Simplicity makes the right kind of waves
We all love the “big idea.” But brainstorming may not be the quickest way to a C-suite office. Most really big ideas seem complex or impractical at first and encounter a lot of resistance. Imagine buttonholing Steve Jobs in 1984 when he’s trying to bring out the first Macintosh computer. “Steve! Forget the iMac. Let’s make an iPhone!” Now imagine carrying your belongings in a box as you are escorted out of the building.
To make an impact within an organization, simplicity and a modest scale is often wisest. Mechele recalls that in one job she began thanking everyone who improved life within the organization. And she did so with handwritten notes. One person whom she thanked in this fashion kept the note on a bulletin board for years. Believe me, having a fan within your organization can make a huge long-term impact.
Small and simple projects (learning how to fix the printer) aren’t threatening. But they can catch favorable attention and make a lasting impact.
Pillar 3. Change keeps you dynamic
You may never have seen the play or movie Glengarry Glen Ross, but I’ll bet you’ve heard its famous selling mantra: “ABC—Always be closing.” Here’s a slight adaptation: “Always be changing.”
Most people fear change, but they shouldn’t. Change keeps you dynamic. Once you decide to grow within your organization, you should extend that decision to your personal life. Get outside your comfort zone and learn new ideas. Stretch yourself and learn new skills.
Here are a few tips to get you started. Take a class in something you know nothing about. It could be online, but brick and mortar is probably better since you’ll be mingling with new people. Or just read a specialty magazine from cover to cover. Watch a news show that makes you angry. Keep watching—you may learn something even if you don’t agree.
Encourage your reports to master new subjects. When Howard Safir was Commissioner of New York City’s Fire Department, he offered firefighters a chance to be trained on defibrillators. To some this seemed illogical, since it’s not in the traditional “firefighting” tool kit. But many loved the idea of being able to save lives in an unexpected way.
Pillar 4. Ideas for innovation are everywhere
Many people think they’re not innovative because they are handicapped by clichés such as light bulbs and “Aha!” moments. Sure they occur, but they usually happen when you’re open for inspiration, not seeking it. If you don’t believe me, go on. Have a big idea right now. I mean right now.
Any luck? Without a thread to start with, it’s hard, if not impossible, to come out with new ideas out of the blue. But look what happens if you get a kick start.
Amazon is considering using drones to improve its delivery capabilities. Maybe we’ll have pizzas flying in our windows!
How might you use drones in your business?
I bet that by starting with something concrete you immediately had a few ideas, even if they were a little impractical. Keep at it! Start an idea log on a notepad or your smartphone. When you have an idea or see or hear about something that seems promising, jot it down.
Above all, don’t worry about being “original.” Be shameless when you pilfer. Years ago at the Robert A. Becker agency, we created a money-back guarantee for patients if our client’s drug didn’t lower blood pressure. The program generated a lot of publicity and gave us an immediate sales boost. We invented this idea, but that didn’t stop our competitors from stealing it from us!
Using the Four Pillars
Once you understand the four pillars, you’re ready to turn them into strategies for success.
- Think of your efforts as providing service to people. The more people you serve, the more opportunities you’ll have to impress and prosper.
- Strive for simplicity first – the big ideas and big programs will come in time. Solving a small problem can make a bigger impact than a brainstorm.
- To become a change agent, you need to embrace personal change by seeking experiences to grow beyond your comfort zone.
- Develop a knack for recognizing opportunities for innovation. Don’t be afraid to pilfer an idea. And when, inevitably, your ideas are copied – consider it flattery!
Sander Flaum is CEO of Flaum Navigators, chair of the Fordham Leadership Forum at the Fordham University Gabelli Graduate School of Business, and author of several leadership books. Mechele Flaum is founder and chief Firestarter at Marketing Fire. They are the authors of BOOST YOUR CAREER: How To Make An Impact, Get Recognized, And Build The Career You Want.
For more information, please visit www.BoostYourCareerBook.com.