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The entire Navigate the Chaos collection of all 365 blog posts is now available in a paperback entitled Navigate the Chaos (795 pages for $24.99). A smaller collection of thoughts from the Navigate the Chaos collection is available in paperback entitled Wonder (94 pages for $4.99)

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?” There is a common unattributed adage that reads “The truth is most of you won't ever start because you don't want to be seen starting at the bottom.” The ironic thing about this statement is that one of the most utilized approaches to navigate the chaos of any business is to start at the bottom and work as many jobs as possible, rising from one level to the next, and perhaps ultimately the top.

Unfortunately, many young professionals, with or without a college degree, believe they deserve to start at the middle, or for some, even higher. Can you start at the bottom and work your way up? Not only should you, but it is also a preferred strategy so you can understand all aspects of your business and industry.

Howard Putnam, Ronald E. Daly, and Melissa McCarthy understand the value of doing 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 small tasks and move into one responsibility after another. Eventually, he would 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 completion of one small task after another.

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 management position 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 talk show host 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. "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 a production assistant, what some people might consider a low-level job, Melissa found herself multi-tasking each day. According to her 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 it’s 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? Now some people may think it is best to get to the top as quickly and as young as possible. For those who follow that approach, do realize the faster you move sometimes, the more you miss along the way. All the small things you do as you travel the path of navigating the chaos form the foundation for your later years.

  • How often do you do 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?

  • Are you embarrassed to be seen working at the bottom?

  • Do you know anyone who started at the bottom and worked their way up to the top? If so, what lessons did they learn along the way?


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