Entrepreneurship & Business: Why Your Legacy Matters More Than Your Title Does
Chief Executive Officer. Chief Financial Officer. Executive Vice President. Executive Director. Associate Director… the list goes on, and I’m sure it would go on for days and wrap around the world 40 times.
We love titles. In any business or position, it gives us a sense of purpose, a goal to reach for and substance to justify why we do what we do. We want to advance. We want to be “successful”.
If you’re reading this, you’re either seriously intrigued by the title or may be wondering what blasphemy I’m promoting — or both.
But trust me when I tell you that by the end of this article you will see and know why your title doesn’t matter.
Your next thought is, “What do you mean? I’ve lived my entire life to work towards that executive title!”, or “My director title is only 6 months away and you’re telling me it’s useless?”
Why yes, yes I am.
I know — I can’t wait for the comments at the end of this article telling me how wrong I am, but once again, I plead for you to hear me for just a moment.
Where It All Started
I remember starting my first job as a government worker. I had taken my civil service exam and was called to start my first day as a full-blown government employee.
Wow. This was it.
I achieved entry into one of the best job meccas in the area and I was psyched. Coming from a food service position at the ripe old age of twenty, I knew I was on my way to an opportunity to have an actual career.
On my walk into the office, I immediately took out the organization chart and analyzed the structure of my department. Representatives. Senior Representatives. Junior Managers. Managers. Junior Associate Directors. Associate Directors. Directors. Senior Director. Senior Executive Director… the list went on and on an on.
I felt like I was looking up and endless staircase of titles and wasn’t sure how or if I’d ever “make it”. Where did I even start or aim to go? I was a clerk and had no idea what that even meant at the time.
Six months into my job, I learned quickly who I was and where I stood in the eyes of the people that surrounded me. I was the lowest of the low. The one who completed menial tasks that consisted mostly of what others didn’t want to do.
Talk with clients. Deal with unruly, explosive situations. Process paperwork. Repeat.
My job seemed menial to those around me. I was the person nobody payed attention to or cared about… until a dreary Monday morning came around.
First Impressions Will Be Your Last
“Beth, Tamera is at the window again.”, said one of the workers in my department as she huffed back to her seat and slammed down her notebook.
We worked for Social Services and issued government assistance checks to parents who were looking for work. This was at the peak of the great recession and times were tough all around.
Tamera had a reputation. She was hostile, explosive and would use every swear word in the English dictionary (and Urban) along with varying vocal octaves to get her point across if she wasn’t happy about something.
She had incorrectly submitted her payment request for daycare assistance for her seven children. Her worker tried to explain to her that she needed to fill out another form and it would take an additional two weeks for her to receive payment.
That was her trigger. She flipped.
As the fireworks began, the worker closed the window and walked away.
Here we go.
It was now my job to go to the window and wait for her to fill her form out and give it back to the worker. After all, I was the clerk and did whatever the workers didn’t want to do or handle.
My heart began to beat out of my chest as I mentally prepared myself for the verbal beating that awaited me.
As I approached the counter, as soon as I made eye contact with Tamera, she lost her mind and the beating began. I was behind a bullet-proof glass window and I sat there and watched as she went from ranting and raving to suddenly weeping.
Never before having heard this person express any emotion other than anger, she just began to sob — right there in front of me.
At that point, I did something that completely violated protocol. I opened the door, stepped into the hallway and approached her face to face, one on one.
“I just need my money. That’s it.”, she said as she continued to sob.
“Tamera,” I said softly, “what do you think we need to do to help you get your money?”
“I can’t. I can’t fill this out. I won’t do it!” she snapped back.
“Why?” I asked.
Silence took over the room and she suddenly stopped sobbing. Her demeanor changed and she became angry again.
Interchanging expletives with actual words, she then simply and quietly stated, “I… I can’t read it.”
At that point, the wall of anger and aggression that she had built suddenly began to crumble. She began to explain that she never finished school and had a learning disability which created immense problems with her ability to read.
This was also a major reason why she had a hard time keeping a job. She was embarrassed and told me that she would now have to take the bus back to where she lived, have a neighbor help her and then come all the way back to submit her paperwork which would take another week.
I stopped her right there and told her that we would do it together right there in line. After about thirty minutes, she submitted her paperwork to me and then left.
Phew. Crisis averted, problem fixed and we were both happy to be done with everything.
I went home for the day almost nearly after that and called it a day.
What The Future Held
Unbeknownst to me at the time, from that day forward, word has spread that “Miss Beth” was the person to ask for when you were dropping off your paperwork. So, instead of workers being paged at the assistance window, all you heard was, “Miss Beth to the front, please”.
For three years, dozens of times each day, that would be yelled across the room by a representative. To say I received “evil-eyes” from fellow workers was an understatement. They thought I was “enabling” clients and showing favoritism, but all I was concerned about was making sure that the clients got what they needed and our workers weren’t frustrated with incorrect paperwork and were able to do their jobs.
The irony was that the work that the workers hated and wanted me to do was suddenly shining light on my ability to manage people and build relationships even in the most difficult situations — and they hated me for it.
By simply being myself, I was promoted to a higher position without even thinking about it. The hierarchy of the department, having a strategic plan of action of who to usurp or who to become friends with to climb this imaginary ladder didn’t even matter.
So What’s The Point Here?
For nearly ten years after that, I continued on in my career and focused more on my passion for helping others instead of my pursuit of what society defined as success.
Quickly, I climbed the chain of command and wound up going rogue and running my own marketing company. When I had business cards made, I was tempted and put “President and CEO” as the focal point, but then after a while I changed my mind and simply stated that I was a strategic consultant.
I decided to do that after thinking about what happened a few years after I had that conversation with Tamera.
One night, I was taking a course at a local college and sat down in my seat for the three-hour long night class. I had just finished work and was exhausted, but needed to finish my degree.
My father had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and I had to drop out of college several years before to help care for my much younger siblings.
That night, as I got ready for a long and exhaustive lecture, I had another student plop down in their seat next to me and I suddenly recognized her face. She was a former client from years ago that I worked with in social services.
She was now sitting next to me in the same class and burst into the highest-pitched voice I’ve ever heard to this day.
“MISS BETH!” she squealed in front of everyone — thankfully the class had not started yet.
“What are you doing here, Ms. Beth?” she asked, “I thought you had a degree?”
As we exchanged stories, I told her my situation and she, hers. After struggling to work and care for children on assistance, she decided to go back to school to start an official childcare business that would help parents in need.
What she then proceeded to say blew my mind and changed my life.
“Miss Beth, you were the best. You were the only person who really helped us. You actually cared. When you left, that was a huge let down. But, I’m glad you’re here doing something good with your life. You deserve it.”
A full-grown woman was saying this to me who was several years my senior. She also had still remembered what I had done for her and others like her so many years ago.
I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea that what to me seemed to be a small, random act of kindness, had somehow made an impact on this woman’s life. I didn’t have this affluent title, I was simply a clerk who wanted to help people succeed in the way that I could.
As I remembered that happenstance, I realized that the title I had wasn’t going to impress my clients, it was who I was as a person that would — and did.
Why Your Legacy Matters More Than Your Title Does
To get to the main point of this article, after that run-in with a former client, I had the privilege and blessing to experience two other similar situations like this as a result of something I had done for someone.
It is a truly rare and humbling experience to have the opportunity to be thanked, years later, for an impact that you’ve had on someone’s life — no matter how small.
However, today, there is such a focus, especially for Millennials in business, to prove to older generations that they can do anything they want to. The issue is, however, that typically there’s a trail of bodies that are left behind as a result. Dead bodies, to be exact.
I’ve had the displeasure of meeting people like this. They’re energetic “thought-leaders” who have all the answers to life’s problems — especially in business. I mean, isn’t everyone under 30 ready to run their own company and be a millionaire?
If Facebook says you should be a CEO, you obviously should be — right? Just attend this seminar, read this book and listen to this audio file every night before you go to bed… for only three easy payments of $49.95…
…and I digress…
I’ve found displeasure in people like this for one, simple reason. They’ve attained the world’s definition of “success”, all the while preventing others from achieving success themselves. Creating a wake of dead bodies where ever they roam.
Crushing dreams. Ruining self-esteem. Demolishing potential.
This Kid Killed Me…
I’ll never forget the 19 year old business guru and “CEO” who had been featured on the front of Time Magazine for his instant success in a niche business.
I was sitting at a breakfast table with him and he began to complain about how he thought it was tedious to have to worry about feeding himself and that he needed to hire someone to help him figure out how he should eat every day. He then continued to insult working people by saying that minorities were the best house cleaners…
Yes, I put my fork down and stared — almost obviously. Wanting to jab it firmly into his hand as he laughed.
He may be known in Time Magazine for his instant rise in the business world, but I’d love to hear how others think of him and the legacy he’s left for the people he’s worked with — or had work for him.
It should be no surprise that I shortly thereafter resigned from that engagement.
I think that the stories that I’ve listed, as I’m sure you, dear reader, can share similar tales, should make us question our motives in life and business.
Climbing up the corporate ladder and making a “name” for yourself, is only as rewarding as the legacy that you bring along with it and what remains behind when that title or accomplishment is nothing but dust.
And you and your “title” will be nothing but dust, eventually.
Your legacy shouldn’t consist of how high they had to pile the dead, mangled bodies for you to stand on when you reached your goal. What it should consist of is the hands you’ve reached out to that have built up and support the podium you’re now standing on.
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