How often do you do the small tasks?

Today is June 20 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you do the small tasks?” One of the most utilized approaches to navigate the chaos of any business is to start at the very bottom and work one job after another rising from one level to the next. Unfortunately, many young professionals, with or without a college degree, believe they deserve to start at the middle, or for some, even higher. This happens with those who go right to graduate school from undergraduate.

Armed with a Master’s degree in hand many graduates believe they have earned the corner office. But with little or no work experience, they have missed out on understanding the small tasks, the nuances, and the culture involved with getting work done at the lowest of levels.

Can you start at the bottom and work your way up? Not only should you, it is a preferred strategy so you can understand all aspects of your business and industry. Here are seven examples:

  • Mary Barra of General Motors: At age 18, she started on the assembly line at General Motors, checking fender panels and inspecting hoods. Now, she’s the Chairman (since January 4, 2016) and Chief Executive Officer (since January 15, 2014) of General Motors.

  • Robert A. Iger: started as a weatherman on a local ABC news station. Today, he is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Walt Disney Company.

  • Doug McMillon of Walmart: loaded trucks at a Wal-Mart distribution center as a teenager. Now, he’s the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Walmart Inc.

  • Alex Gorsky of Johnsons & Johnson: In 1988, he started as a sales representative at Janssen Pharmaceutica, a Johnsons & Johnson subsidiary. Today, he is Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Johnson & Johnson.

  • Michael Corbat of Citigroup: He started in the sales department at Salomon Brothers, which merged with Citigroup a few years later. Now, he’s the current chief executive (CEO) of Citigroup.

  • Abigail Johnson of Fidelity: Even though her father was the longtime CEO of Fidelity, she started at the bottom as a telephone operator, answering phones at Fidelity, and today, she is the president and chief executive officer of Fidelity Investments (FMR), the $2.46 trillion-in-assets firm.

  • Greg Garland of Phillips 66: In 1980, he started as a project engineer for the Plastics Technical Center at Phillips 66. Today, he is the chairman and CEO.

As of August 19, 2019, reported by

Howard Putnam, Ronald E. Daly, and Melissa McCarthy understand the value of doing the small tasks.

Howard Putnam became a baggage handler at Capital Airlines at 17 years of age. According to Putnam "At 19, I decided I wanted to be president of an airline. So I adopted a 'What do you need me to do?' mentality. Work a double shift. Train someone. Transfer me to another department or city. I will do it. My wife, Krista (a former flight attendant), and I were willing to sacrifice to make it happen. We were and still are a team after 60 years of marriage."

Putnam’s mentality, approach, and sacrifice allowed him to complete one small tasks after another and move into one responsibility after another. Eventually, he would go to and finish his career as CEO, Southwest Airlines (1978-1981) and then CEO, Braniff International Airways (1981-1983). The goal he set at 19 years-of-age became a reality due to his dedication to doing whatever was necessary.

Ronald E. Daly started as a proofreader at RR Donnelley at 17 years of age and finished his career as CEO of Océ-USA Holding (2002-2004). According to Daly "In 38 years at RR Donnelley, I went from apprentice proofreader to president of its largest unit, Print Solutions, a $3.7 billion business. The number-one thing I learned is you have to market yourself like a product and differentiate yourself. I got my education—an associate degree, undergrad degree in business and MBA—as a differentiator. I was a proofreader for four years, starting at $1.92 an hour. It was boring, so I applied for production coordinator and got it—the first African-American in that job. Few managers were educated (they were craftsmen), so I saw an opportunity.”

A few years later, when he was 32 a manager job opened up in a money-losing unit. Not to be deterred, Daly applied for and got the job. Withing two years the unit became profitable by applying a root cause analysis he learned in college. According to Daly “A few years later, I was a long shot to be general manager at a Pennsylvania plant, but I dazzled the senior VP in the interview and got the job. In 20 months, I made radical changes. I always stayed on the cutting edge of management. I'm a risk taker, and I don't mind taking on tough assignments." Like Putnam, Daly did whatever was necessary to go from proofreader to CEO during his career.

Actor Melissa McCarthy sat down with Howard Stern in 2014 to explain how she almost quit pursuing acting roles just days before her big break came as a cast member on the long-running drama Gilmore Girls (2000-2007). She had always planned to quit if she was not a working actor by age 30. "It ran for seven years it was the first time like I could say I was an actress," McCarthy said.

Her cousin Jennie McCarthy was already a star and afforded Melissa the opportunity to work on the crew for her TV and film projects before her big break came. "That was my first job in the business," Melissa said in the interview. "I actually learned a lot from that... It was incredibly nice because that's what I wanted, I was like, 'I don't know anything about this. I don't know how any of it works.' I'd only been in theater. And that job literally, every single time I do something today, it's made me better."

As (what some people consider a lowly) production assistant, Melissa found herself multi-tasking each day, she was responsible for, "Everything. You did the garbage, you cleaned up, you did craft service, you'd do every single thing, I dropped the film at night. I was the first one there and the last one to leave and its - like, I wish everybody that went into the business had to do that."

And therein lies the key. If you want to get to the top of whatever business you are in, how do you expect to get there if you have no idea what the foundation looks like?

  • How often do you do the small tasks?

  • Do you avoid the small tasks because you think you are better than those doing them?

  • If you have more experience have you caught yourself telling someone “Well I don’t do that anymore since I moved up?”

  • How do you treat those who do the small things?