The Color of Money

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Four years ago, my friend “Money” was a regional account manager for a local manufacturer’s representative, carrying a bag and trying to make a buck.  Now, in just four short years, he’s the COO at a major IT and integration firm.  His story is especially timely, not only because of the economic climate, but because Money is having a birthday this month…he turns 29 (no joke). How did Money rise to the top?

Here are some key characteristics that put Money in the corner office:

1.  Education: Money went back to school, finished his undergraduate degree (he was a few credits shy) and then started in on his MBA at night.  Balancing a travel schedule and a family added to the complexity, but forced him to stay focused.  Now he goes back to his alma mater and advises graduate students on workforce initiatives and interview skills.  The advanced degree was crucial; Money sees the value of education.  Others would not be able to balance a family, a career, and graduate coursework (and Money might say that “balance” was not a fair description on many occasions).  However, the folks that make extra impact are willing to make extra effort.  Success comes to those who will do what others will not.

2.  Watching the Bottom Line: Money has always been focused on …the money.  His impact as a salesperson was evident when he would help customers to see the financial implications of their decisions.  The best salespeople are able to create a clear vision of the future (in their customer’s eyes), and that future always includes their products or services.  If you are a sales leader who wants to advance your career, a clear understanding of finance is crucial to your success.  It’s not about reading a balance sheet (although that’s where it starts); it’s the ability to put your products or services into the cash flow of the organization.  Adding value to your customer means understanding their business well enough to know the bottom-line puts and takes of your sale.

The words “Trusted Advisor” have become almost cliche, but if you understand the underpinnings of the company – in other words, if you can follow the Money – you create the kind of trust that makes customers for life.

3.  Empathy: What makes Money so successful is his ability to read other’s emotions, as well as his own.  Covey says “seek first to understand than to be understood.”  I just say, “Money!” While his accomplishments couldn’t have happened without a healthy ego strength and mental toughness, Money is always quick with some kind of self-effacing humor.  Being able to see the forest and the trees, whether we’re talking about business or indiviual traits, is an important mark of an executive.  That’s the “EQ” (emotional quotient) that is often missing from hard-charging type A individuals.

4.  Diversity: Did you know that the author of “Jurassic Park” and the creator of “ER”, Michael Crichton, was also a surgeon?  Some of the most interesting people I have ever met have surprisingly disconnected backgrounds or interests; like Crichton, these folks somehow manage to succeed in very different fields.  This internal diversity has always been an indicator of intelligence and adaptability.  Money is no exception; a former college athlete, he is also a classically trained pianist.  Reading music – and reading defenses?  Impressive.

5.  Find opportunity in your own backyard: Money is now running a company that he previously worked for, right out of college.  Early in his career he made a strong impression with his work ethic, but moved on to larger opportunity elsewhere. Last year, he returned to his previous company – a company he had followed closely since his early days.  Staying plugged in with an organization, through industry events, personal contacts, and networking can help you to add experiential insight to the interview process.  Upon returning to the scene of the crime, Money walked in like an insider.  That “inside track” is the path to rising above your last title.

6.  Get plugged in: If you aspire to run an organization, you have to understand how it works – within the industry, and within the marketplace.  As I’ve said before, that internal understanding starts with the balance sheet.  Money knew what the organization needed, he knew what he could do for them, and he told his story in a way that was compelling and convincing.  Why?  Because he already knew the plot and the characters. Sales leaders know how to use their past experience to establish a pattern of success, described in terms of a future that includes their impact and influence.  If that last sentence sounds like mumbo-jumbo to you, well, what can I say? Maybe you aren’t Money. Creating the future (with you in it) requires storytelling skills and a firm track-record of accomplishment.

You may find new opportunity awaits you in Manitoba or Marrakesh, but chances are that your best hope for advancement will come from where you are now, or where you’ve been.  I’m not denying any far-off possiblities, but moving forward quickly usually starts close to home, in an industry or company where your talents are viewed with “rockstar” status.  Your greatest value is to those who know you, in an industry where you are an established player.  (Transferring skills from one company or industry is a subject for another blog post).  Where you’ve been is a pretty good indicator of where you’re going, if you know how to capitalize on your talents and experience.

All that being said, the truth is that Money is far from perfect.  In fact, he would be the first to tell you so, typically in a story where he is featured as the punchline.  In our adventures together, we’ve made an interesting observation:  no matter your version of “success”, life circumstances often exist to help us identify our inner comedian.

It’s best to react to triumph and adversity with a wry smile before you believe your own press – good or bad.  Money is no exception; he’s rightfully proud of his accomplishments, but never loses sight of the bumps and bruises that got him to this point.  He is driven, ambitious, well-educated – and still able to laugh at himself on a daily basis.  Perhaps that characteristic is the most important of all.

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