A friend recently asked me for some advice on which direction he should take his career. During the conversation, I began thinking about my own view of business and how I would give myself advice. However, what truly struck me were the specific lessons I learned that weren’t in a classroom but had still shaped how I make decisions. Of course, there are plenty of non-technical lessons that my business school professors taught me, and I still use them every day. But to truly stick with you, some lessons just can’t be learned; they have to be experienced.
Find the Opportunities & Hustle
When I was 14 years old, I went to visit my grandfather for a week. Like he was completing a cliché grandfather-grandson activity checklist, he took me to the zoo, fed me lots of ice cream, taught me how to use power tools, and showed me how to feed birds. And he got me to pick up hubcaps on the side of the road.
You didn’t read that wrong, and the reason was not about the environment or picking up trash.
My aging grandfather wasn’t losing his mind either (although initially I had doubts). As we drove around doing other things, we stopped at random intersections, off-ramps, and empty parking lots and picked up abandoned hubcaps. At the end of the week, we had collected a trunk-full of hubcaps. Where do you go with that kind of hardware? To the hubcap store, of course. A place where people could go buy hubcaps (and rims) for their car. What was special about this place though was that they bought hubcaps too, like a recycling program. They would then sell them to customers who might be looking for a single, missing hubcap. With a little negotiation, we were rewarded with something in the ballpark of $10-15 for the whole lot. With that, we went over to McDonald’s and bought lunch.
My grandfather wasn’t poor; he just didn’t know how to not see opportunities. To him, this hubcap side-hustle was practice for the game of life. It may only buy him lunch one day every week (or two lunches when I’m not there), but we never went out of our way to find hubcaps. It was built into his normal routine. With the right mindset, he could repeat that same process with two other ventures and he’d have lunch paid for the whole week. You have to know that how you bring home the bacon is entirely up to you. Whether you own your company or work for someone else, seek out the opportunities are that aren’t being utilized. There’s no hard and fast rule to finding these, but not looking for them is the best way to not see them at all. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but you have to ask yourself what you’re going to do to earn it.
Be A Mile Wide, Not Just a Mile Deep
My first job in high school – not counting that one night I worked as a dishwasher – was at Target when I was 17. I worked in logistics, which sounded really cool, but we just called it “the backroom”. I was responsible for replenishing all the inventory from our backstock and putting it out on the shelves.
One day, our general manager, I’ll call him Brian, took us on a ‘store-tour’, as he called it, where we walked the entire store before we opened. Normally only managers did this, but his sporadic store-tours involved everyone working that shift. We got to the bath section and Brian walked us down the towel aisle. Without warning, he snatched a stack of towels off the shelf and threw one each to random employees. They might have worked in electronics or were a cashier, but they had to refold their towel and put it back on the shelf. A note – if you’ve ever been to Target, you may have noticed the towels are folded in a specific way; it’s nothing special, but they’re all the same and that’s the important part. Brian was testing people to see if they knew what they were doing. After all, if an employee walked down that aisle and saw a towel messily shoved back into the shelf, could they fix it and make the store look better?
As the general manager, Brian knew that everyone took excellent care of their department. It as scary how some employees could tell you the exact shelf placement of WD-40 or the difference between dry-erase markers. The employees are trained to be a mile deep in their inch of the store. That wasn’t good enough for the business, however, because Brian wanted everyone to also be an inch deep across the mile of the whole store. He didn’t require everyone to know the differences between towel brands, but they should be able to fix a messy stack. Whatever your business is, you don’t need to know everything about everything. Leaders don’t rise because they were the best programmer or accountant; they rise because they can truly grasp the whole picture and how every other gear in the machine turns. Improving your value is about having the ambition to learn past your specific responsibilities.
Every Single Person Matters
At the age of 25, I began working as a server at a country club in Miami. On my first day of work, I was taken on a tour of the facilities and at some point, brought to meet the general manager, who I’ll call Renee. She asked me where I came from, if I was excited to work here, and then she told me a little about herself. She also added that her door was always open, and I am always welcome.
Fast forward two years, I was working as the Communications Manager in office space right next to Renee (a story I’ll save for a different day, but in short, it’s because of the first and second lessons). This put me in a unique position, literally, to see everyone who came to her office. The one thing I noticed was that every single employee was brought to her office in their first week of working. I never heard her say that they should be brought by, but it was part of our culture that everyone was to come meet her. More importantly, she wanted to meet everyone. I saw dozens of employees over the years come and go from that office to ask a question or tell her some news. She could walk anywhere on the grounds to say hello to an employee, almost always by name, and immediately pick up a conversation about their personal life, asking about specific children or vacations. Rest assured, no employee had a problem going to Renee’s office to say something to her because they knew she welcomed the opportunity.
Admittedly, there were about 100 employees who worked at this country club. This is to say that sometimes it is downright impossible to know everyone who works with you; some companies’ employee-count ranges in the thousands or tens of thousands. However, I would argue that every person in a company has a department with a smaller number of employees, and probably other departments with which they work closely. I would also argue that most people could name 100 people in their life, regardless of how well they know them. The significance of getting to know people is two-fold. First, you enrich the culture of your business when you have a working relationship that extends past the specific business you share with them. Second, by knowing more about someone, you are much more like to approach them when you need something that ends up being business-related.
I would love for anyone to take these specific business lessons with them in their own lives, but that would miss much of the point. This whole piece started with someone talking to me about their career and I started exploring my own, down a different road. That is where the value is; keep these lessons in mind when you’re around leaders. Look deeper at what they’re doing and how they are teaching you, not with explicit words or concepts, but with the whole experience.