I see evidence many ambitious young leaders think the same way I did when entering the workforce after college.
See if this doesn’t sound familiar.
I earned a bachelor’s degree and held an honor society membership. I had many years of work experience under my belt from various jobs held during high school and college where I worked my way up the ladder as high as I could go. I was a responsible colleague, an excellent student, and I was often the one who made sure our group projects got an “A”.
In addition, I was always involved in class and student leadership, as well as volunteerism. To anyone reading my resume, it was clear to me they would immediately acknowledge I was a stellar individual.
By all measurements, I considered myself highly capable and valuable. Too valuable to start at the bottom.
I needed to be jettisoned right into leadership and begin my climb somewhere above the lowest rung of the proverbial ladder of success.
It’s embarrassing to me now, yet those were my deep down, honest thoughts. If you had asked me outright, I would have denied it and said something polite out of vain humility (no such thing, by the way).
The workforce saw it differently, though, and I’m glad it did.
I kept applying for jobs that weren’t entry level. Apparently, my application choices were so incongruous with my experience it caught the attention of an HR recruiter, who kindly called me in for a face-to-face.
She told me directly that I would never be considered for the positions for which I was applying due to my inexperience. She pointed out six positions I was qualified for, and my heart sank. They were all positions that paid one dollar over minimum wage; very different than the ones I was selecting for myself.
In full transparency, my student loans were coming due and I needed a paycheck, so I swallowed my pride and applied to the six jobs. I had my choice between two positions and began work as a secretary within the month.
When I started at the bottom, I didn’t think it was necessary or valuable. Now, I firmly believe it is one of the best things that could have happened and I am grateful for the experience.
The travesty of starting at the bottom turned out be a blessing. It turns out I wasn’t ready for leadership. It turns out I didn’t know everything there was to know about working in an office environment. Turns out I had a lot to learn.
I decided to learn it. With that knowledge I now head the department in which I began as a secretary.
For anyone willing to start at the bottom and learn, there is a lot of return on investment. A lot. I’ll only mention three benefits here:
Experience is everything - I have gleaned so much information, experience, and insight. I use my previous experiences toward consistent improvement. Being on the front lines gives a sense of what works well, common pinch points, and most valuable of all, human tendencies and interactions. The vast majority of leadership is about working with people. Understanding how to work with easy - as well as difficult - people gives a foundation that is often overlooked when hiring for leadership roles. Leaders (future and current), you need to rock those front line human interactions, because that is where success resides.
Trust through experience - There is a camaraderie and trust generated through mutual experience. A brother and sisterhood of sorts. I value people in my first role because I’ve been where they are, and they feel as though I understand far more than someone who simply reads a procedure manual. Trust is extended and built through mutual experience.
Grow leaders - Because I’ve felt the frustration, the exhaustion, and the feelings of satisfaction they feel, our front-line workers know they are valued. I attempt to give them what I wish I had - a voice. They have a seat at the decision table. They have the ability to improve processes and give feedback that makes a difference. I ask for, accept, and incorporate their thoughts. It helps me and our team immensely, because it grows leaders. They get the chance to develop skills beyond their job description, and I get the benefit of growing potential candidates for higher positions within our team. It’s a tremendous win-win.
Indra Nooyi, retired Pepsi CEO, agrees. She says, “You must start at the bottom. You must understand why people are doing what they are doing before you can make decisions that impact their life.”
Take that entry-level job. Own it. And use it to be with your team.