by Christopher H. Volk, author of “The Value Equation: A Business Guide To Creating Wealth For Entrepreneurs, Investors And Leaders“
I am among the millions of successful American business executives who have had satisfying careers. I led three companies that performed well. Our companies created staff opportunities, provided valued customer solutions, delivered community investments and served as valued clients for our many vendors and capital providers. That is how most successful companies operate, forging virtuous cycles of performance.
Passion Is Not A Prerequisite
Wondering about getting into business and maybe even starting a company of your own? You may think a prerequisite is that you first need to be passionate about the business you select. That would be wrong.
I spent the better part of my career directing real estate investments into properties leased to businesses on a long-term basis. Had you asked me about my passions when graduating from college or at the start of my career, the career path I ultimately found would have been nowhere on the list. Nor was I even that passionate as I started my first job in the real estate net lease arena.
Guiding any successful business career begins with self-discovery. The very first question you need to ask yourself is whether you aspire to leadership. If you do, this single decision will have implications for your career path. I began my career in commercial banking and decided early on that I wanted to eventually position myself to accept leadership roles high within the organization. That decision led me to invest in added education, earning an MBA in evening classes. That decision also led me to direct my career into credit analysis and commercial lending, which were both tried and true steppingstones to banking leadership.
Why Size Matters
As my career progressed, I found that I had a second question about myself that I needed to answer. Am I more comfortable working in a small company or a large company? Larger companies have implicit advantages. Career paths may be numerous, leadership positions may be numerous and there may be welcome opportunities to occasionally relocate domestically or even internationally. Navigating to leadership involves skill. But navigating to large company leadership involves a higher degree of interpersonal skills, together with a tolerance for bureaucracy tending to accompany larger organizations.
I made a personal decision that I would be more likely to rise to senior leadership within a smaller business. All organizations require political navigation skills, but smaller organizations tend to be more tolerant of the politically less agile. I was apt to speak my mind and readily share opinions. I also preferred nimbleness to bureaucracy. Such characteristics can work well in smaller companies, where there are fewer places to hide and where individual contributions are more visible. I found that I preferred the higher visibility which provided me with a greater sense of self-satisfaction.
Within larger companies, the power of individual contributions is not always evident. I had seen large companies shutter divisions and lay off personnel who were unaware their contributions were perceived to have little strategic value. I came to the conclusion that job security was enhanced by both being very good at what you do and by knowing and seeing your organizational impact.
Aptitude to Excellence
Internships and early careers are important to one added aspect of self-discovery: What do you have aptitudes for? All of us have multiple aptitudes. For instance, we might find that we are comparatively good at math, science, writing, computer or interpersonal skills, just to name a few. I personally found I had relatively decent math skills, together with fairly strong writing, computer and logic skills. I put these talents to use early on in learning to read and interpret corporate financial statements and model corporate financial performance.
Finding one’s aptitudes is harder than it sounds. For one thing, assessing what your skills are also entails knowing areas where your skills fall short. Simply acknowledging personal weaknesses can be hard. The best business leaders tend to have high levels of self-awareness, surrounding themselves with others having complementary skill sets that offset their own shortcomings. I was grateful to have fellow leaders with high organizational, operational detail, documentation detail and administrative skills that far surpassed my own. And, given my own tendency to be less political, I was happy to listen to their opinions and debate freely.
For an aptitude to become a skill requires commitment and work. In my leadership aspirations, I focused aptitude cultivation in areas I thought would become valuable. I improved my business modeling, analytical, sales, presentation and leadership skills. Author Malcom Gladwell famously defined the difference between mere aptitude and excellence to encompass 10,000 hours of invested time. Without question, I met that mark.
And Then Passion Finds You
Something interesting happens when leadership aspirations lead you to commit 10,000 or more hours to become good at something. You start to become a resource for others. You start to become a problem solver. This is where the best jobs lie.
If you can become a problem solver, you’re more likely to have higher job satisfaction. The simple act of solving problems fulfills a universal human desire to be able to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Importantly, problem solving ability can improve job satisfaction through greater daily task diversity. It follows that problem solvers are the group from which leadership is harvested.
We tend to share many common passions. Making a positive difference in the lives of others is often at the top of the list, especially when our impact is acknowledged. Passions we tend to share include goal attainment, job diversity, winning, personal growth and seeing our own organizational impact, among others. For entrepreneurs, common passions also include personal independence and self-reliance.
A major reward for travelling the long road between aptitude and excellence is the increased likelihood of passion fulfillment and job satisfaction. Then, as we are emotionally rewarded for our work, we start to reciprocate our passions. Job satisfaction and passion fulfilment cause us to become passionate about our work in another virtuous cycle.
I find that people who ask those at the start of their careers to follow their passions generally have it exactly backwards. After a period of self-discovery, aptitude identification and committing to personal improvement, universal passions are rewarded, job satisfaction improves and our career passions find us.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca (~50AD)
The Roman stoic philosopher Seneca had it right. Having gone through self-assessment and determined you would like to eventually be in corporate leadership offers no guaranty of success. Nor does walking the road from aptitude to excellence. But the outcome of doing neither is highly certain. Preparation is essential.
A long-time mentor, serial entrepreneur and business partner of mine put it this way: “You make your own luck.” He started and ran a number of businesses before coming across a singular business opportunity that would ultimately land him in the richest .1% of Americans. Importantly, he enjoyed his journey.
To get a “shot at the brass ring” denotes meaningful monetary or career achievements. I would add life and career satisfaction to that list. The saying is derived from late 19th and early 20th century carousels, where riders would hope the timing of the elevation of their moving horses would allow them to successfully reach for a dangling brass ring exchangeable for a prize. There was a modest bit of luck involved, but preparation, timing and effort were crucial. And sometimes, you just had to change horses. This is an apt career metaphor.
You Make Things Happen
To honor Seneca, I have a complementary observation: “You either make things happen or things will happen to you.” The pursuit of a successful business career requires active engagement, starting with self-awareness and the journey from aptitude to excellence. Career success also requires navigation. There was more than one moment in my career where I found it necessary to counter the trajectory suggested by my employer. To get the brass ring requires that you work hard to reach for it. It will not simply hit you on the head. On the other hand, it will be forever elusive unless you come prepared.
Christopher H. Volk, author of “The Value Equation: A Business Guide To Creating Wealth For Entrepreneurs, Investors And Leaders“, has been instrumental in leading and publicly listing three successful companies, two of which he co-founded. The most recent is STORE Capital (NYSE: “STOR”) where he served as founding chief executive officer and then as executive chairman. Volk is a regional winner of EYs’ Entrepreneur of the Year award.