Eye on the Prize
The day I started working in the mailroom at DuPont, I was entering at the bottom of a massive organization in a clerical role. But I knew, deep down in my soul, well beyond where words could articulate it, that I would be a Controller someday (picture the clouds parting and the sun beaming through).
In that first job— although unaware of it at the time, but seeing it with crystal clarity in retrospect—I exhibited a series of behaviors that would become a lifelong on-the-job pattern.
So what were the behaviors that drove such an ambitious career from the mailroom to the boardroom?
First of all, as a foundation, there was an early recognition of three basic principles (taught to me by my parents):
Respect for others is paramount
Luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparation
Life isn’t fair; get over it
So as to entry fees, I knew to respect others, work really hard, and never, ever whine. There I was: 17 years old, with these 3 life philosophies, a love of bookkeeping (as learned in high school), and a dream to someday have the same title that my father did before he died way too young at the age of 48.
At the time, I had no idea what that Controller title meant. All I knew was that my Dad was a Controller, and, as a child sitting at my little desk next to his big one and playing with my office supplies, I had a blast! He’d give me numbers to add, papers to staple, sentences to write and envelopes to stuff. And when he would do the quality control check on what I’d done, that’s where I got the vision that one day … when I grew up … I would sit behind a BIG desk with an inbox and an outbox and … “do work”. That was the dream for me.
Now, I later put some color on that dream, and learned what a Controller was (and confirmed that I wanted to be one). And, initially, I might have been chasing a ghost as I came out of the gate in the mailroom after high school, but that didn’t matter – it drove me. And that is the first key point.
To have a vision inspire you, it’s critical to answer a couple of questions: What is driving you forward? What is so entrenched in your heart and in every breath you take that you couldn’t separate yourself from it if you tried? THEN: KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE PRIZE!
But now back to the mailroom, the first step on the ladder: I took that mailroom job by storm! I’ve talked about this briefly in prior blog posts, but to recap: I owned that mailroom! And with the clarity of hindsight, I would say there were 4 behaviors that enabled that ownership:
Who is training me, and what is important to them? They’ve worked hard here and deserve a lot of credit for handing over the reins in the best way they can. Behavior #1: Visibly respect those who have come before you.
How can I improve this? The mail route was run twice a day, and included deliveries and pick-ups through a maze of, tunnels, bridges, streets and hallways. What an opportunity! I got maps of each building and counted steps. I rerouted the path, and double checked that slight changes in drop-off and pick-up times wouldn’t affect my clients. I observed the building entrances and minimized the times I had to badge in and out of the complex. I calculated which elevators ran the fastest. And I figured out what times which hallways were least crowded. All in, after two weeks, I reduced the time required for those mail runs from 6 hours a day to 3 hours a day. Behavior #2: Excel at the job you are assigned! Do it better than anyone ever thought to do it before.
In this mailroom role, I delivered mail to people working at clerical desks. My next job (God willing) was to be one of those people behind one of those desks having mail delivered to me. So, to the extent that I could, without pestering, I asked questions about what people did with the mail that I delivered. And, sure enough, I found out that if I sorted and stacked it differently, and highlighted a couple of things for them, I could make their processing easier. I tried it and they loved it. And all of a sudden, the faceless mail person had a name and was a friend! Behavior #3: Discover what’s critical to the people you support, and figure out how to contribute to their success.
Finally, I had fun. In fact, here is where I learned that you can make any job fun. I think I’ve talked about this before, but I made up games:
Beating my previous times on the mail route
Tossing mail into the mail slots from behind masking-tape lines on the floor (going for distance and accuracy!)
Making the really grumpy lady laugh at least once a week Behavior #4: Make it fun
So yes – this is a retrospective study on how I attacked a mailroom job. But the effectiveness of these basic 4 behaviors and 3 key lessons have proven timeless and unbounded by title or level of responsibility. They are just as effective today wrestling with CFO-level challenges as they were for the 17-year-old who was wrestling with establishing a foothold. I’m so grateful for a career full of chances to practice them, and of mentors to teach them to me, and hope this may shed a little light for someone starting their own mailroom job today.
Author, Virtual CFO, and Finance Coach
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