I just read a sadly accurate answer to the question of how one succeeds in business by Stephen “DarkSyde” Andrew from The Zingularity blog entitled The hard-work lottery and the myth of success. He is right, you know. The answer is sit next to the right person. Go read the article before we move ahead.
I impressed three people in job interviews to get my first job after college. That is one area I tremendously excel at, speaking with people. It was a consulting firm, and the boss took a shine to me. In me, I imagine he ass himself, and even though they didn’t have a job for me, he knew he could give me a job and find something for me.
My first consulting gig filled me with excitement and a bit of fear. As much as I knew what I was capable of, it was daunting. I was going to work for a large oil and gas company. In Calgary, that is where the big players live. Friends of mine who were loaded had parents who worked in the energy sector. I mean just say it. Energy sector. Doesn’t it just sound like authority?
And here I was, a smart kid, but did I have what it took? I walked in with a confident air I in no way felt and met my team. I was immediately struck by the fact that the higher up the chain you went, the less competent the person you met. This particular company was the Peter Principle incarnate. I got home that night and my then-wife asked what I thought. I said I was stunned we didn’t have more environmental disasters.
Not long after, the CFO came to see me. I was wearing dress pants, a dress shirt, and a tie. He was wearing cheap sweatpants, a cheaper white-with-blue-pin-striped shirt, and looked and smelled like he had just woken up. And he did not like me. I wondered how such a person could be CFO of a large oil company. Now I know. He didn’t need to be liked by me, none of the links in that chain did. Someone important liked them, and they in turn liked someone less important than them.
I got that job because of who liked me and who liked him. I got every job that way. I taught college because the Dean of my program remembered me as a student for my humor and confidence. I got projects far in advance of my experience level with companies who trusted my boss when he said I could do it. And Damnit, I could do it. I surpassed expectations every time. And I knew I would.
Which was my mistake.
No, I didn’t get cocky. No, I didn’t overshoot my capabilities. I thought that the success I was experiencing was based on my skill and my skill only. I’ve learned differently now. It’s not that I’m not absolutely great at what I do. I cost a bit of money, but hiring me is a guarantee to a company that I can save them far more than I cost them. But I no longer work with that consulting firm that first brought me on, and that means I no longer have that guy in my corner. Now, all the shiny resume points aside, I’m just another face in the mob. When I apply for a job, I have to rely on my actual skill, while loads of others rely on their contacts, and that gets them the job ten times out of ten.
I don’t have contacts, you see. Sure, I worked for a lot of places, but I’ve been in my current role a long time weathering the economy, and the people I worked for in the places I once worked are gone to who knows where. And I now get that contacts are everything. I liked being the dark horse, this weird kid with a shaved head and jeans who, in spite of how he looked, was an amazing resource. But what I didn’t know was that what really mattered was the caveat, “and my buddy says he’s great”.
Business is about contacts, not skill. That first job should have taught me that. Hell, every other job I’ve had should have taught me that. It’s why business guys play golf and join professional organizations. Their hole hope is to sit next to the right people, play the right foursome, and find new hands to shake and impress. I’ve never done any of that. I don’t play golf. I’ve only once been a member of a professional organization, and it was an awful experience because of my age and appearance.
They would host these “Lunch ‘N Learn” things. I’d wind up sitting at a table on my own, which would slowly fill up with people, almost exclusively people from consulting firms. They would totally disregard me until the time came for them to have to chat with the people around them. They would uncomfortably ask me what school I went to. I would then tell them that I was Director of Strategic Web Services for a consulting firm whose President and CEO was a past-President of the professional organization. Suddenly they cared about me, but only enough to get my business card. It wasn’t about me at all, it was about the fact that I worked with who I worked with.
So now I sit nearing the end of a contract. The firm I’m working with has told me that they aren’t really able to do much for me, but they’ll keep their eyes open. My contacts are all blown away to the four corners of the earth. Now I’m just a resume. It’s a good looking resume, but I’m not sitting next to someone who will get that resume in the hands of the right people with the right “Oh, Jim? He’s dynamite! Let’s play golf and talk about it!” I’m seriously considering bartending, despite being a gifted and talented Business Analyst with far too many mouths to feed. If I could do one thing better, I’d have learned how to play the game better when I still had someone sitting next to me who could appreciate it.
I’d have taken up golf.