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Building Your Career On A Firm Foundation

I lecture in colleges and universities around the country and when I do, I often ask students what they expect their first job to be. Almost without exception, one student will answer that he or she expects to graduate and immediately become a manager or leader. One young man in particular was very adament about his future as a leader right out of school. He was a very good student, book smart at a top school, studying in a highly sought after degree field. I asked him what qualified him to be a manager directly out of college. He said that in addition to graduating at the top of his class, that had done several internships where he led teams and that he had been told by the person he worked under that he has natural leadership abilities. I asked if he had considered that others at the company where he hoped to go to work may have an equally high GPA but they also had experience working in the field. How would he motivate indivuduals that had more experience than him? He was undaunted and continued to explain how he had been successful in his internships, that he had been mentored by a person who was a successful leader in his field and that he was sure he could hit the ground running and lead a team.

I then asked this young man a question that seemed to be totally unrelated to the subject at hand, "Have you ever built a house or seen a house built?" I asked. He answered in the affirmative, that he had in fact worked on a house for Habitat For Humanity while he was in college and he enjoyed it very much. I then asked him this, "Did you begin with the roof?" He sat there in silence. I asked again, when they built the house that you worked on did they start with the roof?" "Of course not," he said, "they started with the foundation." I then asked the young man why he wanted to begin his career with a roof before he had laid a solid foundation of experience? He didn't have an answer but his silence told me that he understood my point.

Over the more than two decades in the executive search business, I have met many young people that never took the time to lay a solid foundation for their career. The end result was that they moved from one job to another often on an annual basis. They were what we call in the search business runners or chasers, either they were running away from their mistakes or chasing after more money. These individuals had knowledge but no wisdom. Solving problems takes wisdom and wisdom only comes through experience. This is a very important point to remember because the only value anyone has to a company, organization or to a customer is if you can solve their problem, in fact that's why they hire, to solve a problem they don't have the internal resources to solve. 

Ask almost any Marine Second Lieutenant fresh out of Officer's Candidate School who is filled with military knowledge but lacks the wisdom gained in combat if he or she wants to go into combat without a battle seasoned First Sergeant and almost 100% of the time they will tell you no. That Leiutenant knows that his life and the lives of his troops depend to a great degree on the experiences of someone that has been there and done that. The same holds true in a career. The most successful people I know in business and in life were the ones that started at the bottom, sweeping floors and doing what may have seemed like menial work at the time. Those menial jobs allowed the person doing them to make menial misakes, mistakes with small consequences that they could learn from and grow in experience from what they had learned. It's better to make small mistakes that don't cost much than to make those that can put you out of a job or bring a company down. 

When you are working, value the menial work that comes right out of school. That's where you will lay that firm foundation that you will rely on thoughout your career to keep you standing when the pressure starts to build. 

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