Focus on mastering the job, not climbing the ladder.


Ryan Leaf. Brian Bosworth. Sam Bowie. Johnny Manziel. What do they have in common? They make every list of “worst draft picks.” They were all heralded collegiate performers. They were all evaluated by a plethora of experts. Ultimately, a really smart general manager and (likely) a billionaire team owner decided, “Michael Jordan? No way. Let’s draft Sam Bowie instead.”

Hiring the right person is the ultimate challenge for any business leader. Building the right team is an art form that requires skill, luck, perseverance, trial and error. Have I mastered it? No way. I suspect my “batting average” is about .500. That is a hall of fame number…for a baseball player. For a business executive, it is mediocre. I often find myself thinking this: “Imagine how good we could be if I eliminated all of the mistakes.” Of course, it is the mistakes that allow us to learn.

I can sum up my thoughts on this very simply. When my youngest son was getting ready to start his first “real job,” I sent him a note. It went something like this, and I’ve even bolded the best parts in case you want to tweet them.

Be the first one in and the last one to leave.

At a minimum, always be in before your boss and leave after she does. In my early days, I would always save all of my photocopying for the end of the day. Once all of my peers had left (it helps that I did not drink, so happy hour held no allure for me), I sauntered over to the copy machine. Did I mention that it sat right outside the VP’s office? Every night, Michael Marcon was the last person he saw before he left. Interestingly, despite the quality of this advice, it would not work in my own company. Most days when I am not traveling, I am the one unlocking the office door in the morning and the one with the last email at night. Coincidence?

College is not a substitute. Neither are summer jobs or internships.

They both demonstrate that you are capable of finishing what you start, getting up and going to a job, and appropriately interacting with others. They demonstrate (Ursinus College notwithstanding, of course) that you can read, write, add, and subtract. What they do not teach you is how to do our job, our way, in our culture, with our colleagues. Your ability to add value to our firm and our shareholders is what will propel you forward and differentiate you from your peers. Speaking of…

No ear buds.

The tech people and the coders are rolling their eyes. I know. But, in a professional services firm, we collaborate. More importantly, you learn more than you know just from paying attention to what is going on around you. Yes, there are exceptions, but please don’t send me the list. Most of the time, the exceptions are outweighed by the positives of “being present.”

Leave your phone in your desk drawer / briefcase.

Despite the social media aspect of this blog, social media is a “productivity suck.” Employers hate to walk the floor and watch colleague after colleague quickly ditching their phone, turning off their screen, and calling up their spreadsheet. The latest “You won’t believe what this Brady Bunch star looks like now!”, Jay Z / Beyonce video, Donald Trump tweet, and outraged reaction from MSNBC are not important during work hours. FOMO is a true affliction. There was a time when companies used to give smokers a “smoke break” for 10 minutes. I can see a day when we give people a “social media” break. Then, it will lead to “No Social Media” within 50 feet of public buildings or schools. Then, “No Social Media” in all public spaces. Finally, there will be a “Social Media Tax” on all posts and downloads with proceeds going to pay for public awareness campaigns on the health risks associated with social media. Or, you can leave your phone in your drawer and focus on what your employer is paying you to do.

Ask Questions.

Lots and lots of questions. Be like a 3 year old – “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” “But, why?” You cannot learn if you do not ask. Do not stop when your colleagues get lazy and say, “That’s just how we do it.” Your questions and your fresh perspective are what a company needs to rethink the status quo.

Focus on mastering the job, not climbing the ladder.

I wish someone had given me this advice 30 years ago. I was always focused on the next box on the org chart. To excel in our organization, we look for professionals that are mastering their craft. You get ahead by lifting people up, not by tearing them down. You need to have faith that your boss can tell the difference.

If you – or someone you know – fits this description, send me their resume (yes, you still need a resume; no, a YouTube video of you acting out your business skills to various hip-hop songs is not a substitute). They might just be a good fit.

Michael C. Marcon is the founder of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.

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