How a Counterintuitive Strategy Led One Startup Founder to Success
I never thought I would go into the business world. I figured I would end up as a school teacher or maybe a pastor.
I assumed I was too soft to be a business guy.
I thought that to win in business, you needed to be a shrewd negotiator or master strategist, and I considered myself neither. I’ve always just had a heart to connect with people and encourage them.
It turns out many of my assumptions about business were wrong.
I fell into a role as an administrative assistant at a startup, and then in a flash, my career took off.
I was quickly promoted to a management position. Then, before I knew it, that first company was bought by Microsoft, and I was off to cofound a second company with two of my coworkers.
Two years later, the company I cofounded was acquired by Zynga, and I was off again to help grow a third early-stage company that’s still alive and well today.
Over this six-year period of time, I went from administrative assistant to executive and entrepreneur.
I guess I was a business guy.
What the heck happened?
A Counterintuitive Key for Career Acceleration
I’ve identified one key takeaway that’s the most crucial for anyone looking to accelerate their career trajectory. It’s an overlooked expertise, especially in the corporate context:
When I started in business, I knew I didn’t know anything.
I also knew I wasn’t going to fool anyone. So rather than pose as a savvy business guy, I took a learning posture.
Instead of trying to look great to others, I made it my mission to make others great.
At the time, I was so desperate for work I would have cleaned the toilets if that was what the people around me needed.
So I got busy doing the dirty work I knew would make other people’s lives better:
- making travel arrangements
- picking up lunch for my boss
- cleaning up PowerPoints and formatting documents
- volunteering to take meeting minutes
No task was beneath me. And I did it all with a smile because I was truly grateful to have a job that paid the bills.
Quickly, new opportunities emerged. Coworkers invited me to join meetings and new projects. My boss continued to give me higher-level tasks.
Even Executives Need Trash Collection
I started to realize that at all levels of business, there’s dirty work to be done. And everyone wants someone on their team who will do the dirty work—especially when you do it with a smile.
I had found my calling card. I was the Silicon Valley Trash Man.
I got really good at doing all of the dirty work it takes to run a business. First, I did the dirty work as an administrative assistant, then again as manager of personnel, then again as an executive.
One of my companies even gave me the title of Chief Administrative Officer. (Now if that doesn’t scream Head Trash Man, I don’t know what does.)
I found new opportunities because I started by serving, and with each new opportunity came a deeper level of service.
Three Ways to Gain Expertise in Successful Service
What can we learn from my experience? If you’re looking to land new opportunities at work with a service approach, here’s how to start:
- Take a learning posture. Instead of assuming the role of teacher, assume the role of student. Ask good questions and soak up the answers. Not only will you learn a lot; your coworkers will love interacting with you. Who doesn’t like to be sought after as a teacher?
- Make others look good. Take on tasks that help other people succeed—even if they’re non-glamorous. When you get credit for work you’ve done, be sure to highlight others who have helped you out. People will notice this as a stark contrast to the usual “me first” work culture.
- Ask for new challenges. Serving others does not mean you forego personal (or professional) growth. Quite the opposite. At the appropriate time, ask to take on a new role or project that interests you. By this point, you’ll have built up so much good will that others likely will jump at the chance to offer you growth opportunities.
An Unexpected Outcome
Originally, I assumed I was too weak to succeed in business, that I needed to be in an industry like teaching or pastoring that’s explicitly service-oriented.
But I found that what I thought was my weakness was actually my greatest strength.
It turns out that if you’re looking to succeed in business and accelerate your career, serving others is a great place to start.
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