Many leaders start their careers with hopes of reaching the top as quickly as possible, skipping past lower-level positions as they scale the corporate ladder. This is particularly true in the startup scene, where founders essentially choose their own titles and begin their careers in management positions.
My career did not have such a direct trajectory. I meandered through the insurance industry for decades before I finally secured a leadership role. I started out working for my parents’ company, doing the grunt work of the office. I generated invoices, processed mail, and even handled janitorial duties. I was the youngest person in the office and the lowest on the totem pole, so I didn’t have a problem earning my stripes. Some people might see this as a waste of time, but it was invaluable to my character and leadership development.
After these humble beginnings, my career took a circuitous journey that exposed me to aspects of the business that many leaders never experience directly. In the insurance industry, for example, organizations must manage underwriting, claims management, accounting, actuarial work, and predictive modeling, to name a few. If I hadn’t been familiar with the details those responsibilities entail, it would have been nearly impossible to manage people in relevant positions.
For the most part, it’s hard to coach someone to do things you haven’t done yourself. Setting reasonable expectations can be an insurmountable challenge when you aren’t realistic about what workers can complete in a set time frame — and more importantly, what they cannot.
Some people manage to steer their companies to success despite minimal knowledge of the underlying disciplines involved. They might lead a team of software developers but not know the difference between Python and Java. They manage to a budget, and they’re surprisingly effective at that.
Unfortunately, numbers and productivity aren’t everything. If you have no real experience in your industry, then the entire process can break down. You could be creating an unsustainable workload, causing people to get burned out, or failing to tie up loose ends. Those problems don’t show up in metrics.
Companies managed by people who have spent time in a variety of roles tend to be better positioned for success. Workers should covet any opportunity they have to learn something new, as there is no substitute for experience. While leaders cannot change their pasts, there are several things they can do to supplement their gaps in experience and gain a deeper understanding of the mechanics of their companies.
Make the most of your learning experiences by listening carefully and processing information so you retain it. When people spend time teaching you something, they’re giving your part of their heart, brain, and soul. Appreciate this generosity, and gather as much insight as you possibly can by practicing active listening. An unquenchable thirst for knowledge will ensure your career never loses momentum or direction.
The average day might be absolutely chaotic in your workplace, but leaders should dedicate time every day to thinking about the processes that make up their business. Every day, I carve out time to sit at my desk and think. I think about major tasks at hand. I think about ways I can improve the business, my work habits, and everyone around me.
Like most leaders and entrepreneurs, I want to do a better job today than I did yesterday. A quick mental evaluation at the end of the day can provide dedicated time to assess what went right and what went wrong. Work to maintain the standards set the previous day, and brainstorm small ways to deliver consistent growth. Ask what you can do today to improve your personal processes and performance moving forward.
Despite humanity’s inherent resistance to change, just about everyone in the workforce wants to increase his or her efficiency. As we move further into 2018, we have an abundance of technology available that can help companies maximize results and bring people together to function as a team.
I’ve never worked as a software engineer, but I try to find ways to tap into the talents of my technology team. Whether you’re leaning on artificial intelligence to your keep meetings on track or using Slack to help employees connect with each other, technology provides ample opportunities to boost productivity.
Look to the very best in people every day, and think about how you can help each individual maximize his or her value to your company. Do this regardless of past struggles, present roadblocks, or future expectations. Find ways to turn any negative aspects of your employees’ personalities into positives for the organization. Look for opportunities to teach team members and help them improve your business.
Influencing others to perform at their highest level makes people more valuable to a company while also helping them feel valued. People face plenty of negativity in the world, and leaders have an incredible opportunity to create a positive work environment where people look to them for the help, support, and knowledge they need to train for the future.
You might not have the varied experiences in your background necessary to form instant connections with everyone in your company, but that’s OK. If you keep listening to your team members and learning everything you can about their roles, you’ll establish trust and eventually become a skilled leader — regardless of the path you took to get there.
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David Disiere is the founder and CEO of QEO Insurance Group, an agency that provides commercial transportation insurance to clients throughout the U.S. He is a highly successful entrepreneur who has launched business endeavors in the real estate, oil and gas, agriculture, and automotive sectors. He’s an avid collector of classic cars, rare art, first edition books, and Lalique hood ornaments. David is equally passionate about philanthropy, and he works to help underprivileged children through the David & Teresa Disiere Foundation. Connect on LinkedIn.