June 11, 2013

Pay Your Dues

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I recently came across a quote from my friend, Dr. John Bryson, co-founder of Fellowship Memphis, that stuck with me. Dr. Bryson tweeted the following, “Not a great leader in my life who didn’t spend a season of their life making someone else great.”


An Unpopular Idea

“Making someone else great.” You don’t see that phrase on the front of too many book covers, do you? I’m fairly certain Dr. Phil hasn’t done a show on it recently and it’s unlikely that anyone will be making bumper stickers with that phrase anytime soon. While this may not be an especially popular idea today, there was a time not so long ago when this theme was built, perhaps unknowingly, into the fabric of corporate culture. While it may not have been framed in the way Bryson chose to word it, it was there. We used to call it “paying your dues.”

Individuals entered the workforce with the assumption that they had to work their way up from the bottom. They had to start in the mailroom or as someone’s assistant. They fetched coffee and made copies. They came in early and stayed late. Most importantly, though, they didn’t get the glory. Starting from the bottom implicitly meant that you didn’t get all the credit; your name wasn’t in the paper and your face wasn’t on the news. Eventually, you could work your way up, but everyone started at the bottom.

Out of Style  

I’m not exactly sure when the idea of “paying your dues” went out of style. Maybe it is a symptom of the digital age in which we live. If everyone can know just about anything at any time, what really separates those with experience from those without it? Perhaps it’s a natural outgrowth of the continually changing nature of jobs. While industrial jobs once required months or even years of training, computer savvy individuals are now often trained in a matter of days or even hours. Or, maybe the shift has been a generational one. The millennial generation, after all, is more educated and technologically literate than any before it. Why would such a group want to start at the bottom when they often know more and have more education  than those on top?

Regardless of the cause of the shift, it has happened. Individuals entering the workforce today expect to begin their careers in positions indicative of their skill and education. They want to lead and manage out of the gate. The problem with this, though, is that paying your dues really is good for you. It wasn’t just an integral part of corporate culture because bosses were cruel and wanted to haze their subordinates. Now, before you roll your eyes at the old man reminiscing about the “good ole days,” hear me out. Paying your dues, among other things, is important in two distinct ways: 1. It fosters humility. 2. It improves the chances of long-term success.

No Big Heads  

The other day my friend Sean was telling me of his brief stint in the food service industry. To be more specific, he was a busboy, and a lousy one at that to his admission. Among his self-disclosures was he was horrible at carrying large stacks of plates effectively. But he quickly went on to recount the ways that job impacted him.

There is no one lower than the busboy on the food service chain of command. Some of you might be thinking, What about the guy who does the dishes? That’s the busboy. The guy who takes out the trash? Again, the busboy. How, then, did such a glamorous job affect him so profoundly?

First, it made him acutely aware of the enormous amount of work and people  involved in simply giving a restaurant the opportunity to succeed. From food preps that arrive hours before the restaurant opens to cleaning crews that stay hours after it is closed, it takes a mass of people doing very unglamorous jobs to allow for success.

With the exception of the one-man small business, organizations are led by individuals who are dependent on the individuals supporting them. For those of us fortunate enough to lead organizations in one fashion or another, it is often the days we spend “paying our dues” that make us most grateful for the work of those who support us.

Paying our dues can forever change the way we relate to those around us.

Like Sean, I always try to “up tip.” This isn’t because I’m especially generous, though I wish it were; rather, it is because I understand what goes into their job and respect it. I know that when a server is rude to me, it likely isn’t because the server is rude, but rather because a two year old just threw a fork at him and the parents of that two year old left him a 45-cent tip. Likewise, when those around me make mistakes, it is rarely because they are lazy or simply don’t care, but rather because I didn’t give very clear instruction or because they didn’t have the training needed to accomplish the task.

Paying your dues implants within you a respect for the grunt work of the world. It encourages an attitude of grace and understanding, attitudes that are critical in leading effectively.

Don’t Rush to the Big Leagues

Have you ever heard of David Clyde? In the early 1970s, Clyde was a phenomenal high school baseball player destined for stardom. In fact, he was so good that he was drafted by the Texas Rangers out of high school and went straight to the pros without so much as a day in the minors. Clyde pitched his first game in 1973 against the Minnesota Twins, giving up only one hit in five innings and getting his first major league win. Unfortunately for Clyde, the rest of his pro career wasn’t as successful. He pitched sporadically over six seasons, ultimately retiring with an 18-33 career record. What happened to derail the career of such a promising prospect? Well, as Wendy Thurn writes in her article detailing players who skipped the majors, Clyde was rushed to the big leagues. Thurn notes that within two years,  “Clyde had thrown his arm out and he never reached anything like his supposed potential.”

There is a careful progression that normally accompanies preparing a college or high school pitcher for the demands of the majors. When that process is accelerated or ignored, the repercussions can be severe. There are often physical effects, like those that plagued Clyde, but just as often there are mental effects. Some players simply can’t recover from early failures.

When individuals are placed in leadership positions in the workplace before they are ready, a similar phenomenon often occurs. Such individuals are often picked for their “intangibles,” like intelligence and drive. Unfortunately, these attributes are simply less important than most of us have come to believe. Malcolm Gladwell captures this truth wonderfully in his book Outliers, as he addresses the “myth” of innate talent. Gladwell writes, “The closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

Without the practical skills and experience that comes from working one’s way through an organization, talented individuals are often doomed to failure. For some, early failures are enough to derail an otherwise promising career. Seeds of doubt are created about one’s ability to lead and manage. Fear of failure becomes implanted in an individual’s DNA and they constantly avoid challenging situations and positions.

Is your paying your dues fun? No, of course not. Is it important? More than you know.

*Photo by: Robert S. Donovan

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