To Be Successful, Return to Basics

When the economy took a downturn at the start of the 1990s, my career — ironically, it’s headhunting — took a downturn, too. I have to admit I wasn’t ready for difficult times. But that rough patch was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. Today, amid another downturn, I’m sharing the lessons I learned with anyone who cares to listen.

In the 1980s, business was booming. My business was placing professionals in jobs in the interior-furnishings industry, and demand was high. But by 1990, the economy had cooled and — to put it clinically — our optimism had exceeded our circumstances. The parallels with today are obvious and, given the fall that so many have taken, a bit frightening. There was a tendency to ratchet up one’s lifestyle, forgo thrift and indulge extravagance. Nearly all of us did it, and the dip in the economy exposed our shortsightedness in painful ways.

My experience coming out of that downturn was so profound that I’ve sought to share it with others. I started a radio program about careers called “On the Job,” which is now nationally syndicated. What I teach (and some say preach) is that the qualities of a successful employee are largely the same traits you’d want in a good neighbor and a valued friend: perseverance, integrity and sincerity. The bottom line: if you can be a good friend, you can be a successful employee.

Am I a Pollyanna? Not really. Think about it: Nobody likes to work with an unreliable jerk.

On a daily basis, I’m asked what special skills it takes to move up in the “information economy,” and my answer is the same as it was in the “bricks and mortar” economy. Apart from whatever unique training and abilities that a job requires, the building blocks of success are the same across all industries. Resourcefulness, honesty, dedication, kindness and respect will always matter, and they can be acquired without going back to school or cracking a single book. It’s never too late or too early to begin practicing them.

Though I didn’t realize it until later, my parents had given me this insight at an early age.

I grew up in the 1970s, the eldest son of a blue-collar family in a white-collar town, Armonk, N.Y., where International Business Machines Corp. based its world headquarters. While our neighbors worked there, my father worked at the county newspaper as a pressman, pouring the lead for the type. While my dad worked the presses, my mother sold children’s shoes at a department store. My first job came when I was 14, at the local drugstore.

On my first day of work, I showed up in my shiny suit, filled to the brim with ambition and angling to run the register. The owner had other plans. First, he showed me and my shiny suit around the store, then he led me past the gleaming cash register and down a long stairway to… the stockroom. My brilliant career had begun. When I arrived each day after school, I was to replenish the shelves with shampoo, laxatives, tampons and other choice items among the finest in disco-era hygiene and hair-care products.

I was mortified that I wasn’t starting at the top, behind that snappy register; and that my schoolmates might come wandering into the store to find their friend stacking Kotex (and as a 14-year-old boy, that particular type of public embarrassment can cause one to reconsider just about anything). But I remembered why I had applied for the job in the first place: There were things that I wanted, and the only way to get them was to apply myself, to swallow a little embarrassment (which, thankfully, never came) and to remember first and foremost that my goals mattered.

My parents’ work ethic served me well and still does to this day. In fact, it’s what I “preach” day after day to the people who call my radio show, buttonhole me in airports and write to me about their workplace crises. A successful person adheres to a few basic principles: Work hard, show up on time, be polite and respectful, know what you’re doing, and stick with it.

People who abide by these principles don’t stay up nights worried about what’s next. They know that surviving a downturn tomorrow means preparing for a downturn today. Fortunately, that preparation largely involves taking steps that fortify and enrich your standing in the job you already hold.

I practice what I preach, and I’m just vain enough to believe that the rest of the world should as well. The people who enjoy career success are the same people who make the world a little nicer place in which to live. They build their reputation on real achievement and honesty. They dedicate themselves to doing well where they are, not just to reaching the next step up the ladder. They make the best of difficult situations, change what they can and accept what they can’t. They share credit, take responsibility and show respect.

It’s a simple formula for getting ahead, though not always the easiest to practice. Hard work and doing the right thing rarely are. But ask successful people and they will tell you: This is one way up in the world that comes with as solid a guarantee as you’ll ever find. It’s always been that way, and it always will be.

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