The Best Career Advice I Ever Received

For me, college was a long, long time ago. And contrary to what we often tell our children as they head off to the world of higher education, it wasn’t the most enjoyable time of my life. Other than my freshman year, that is, at the University of Vermont. That’s the year I almost flunked out because I spent more time skiing than I did in class or studying. That year was a ball. But it was clear my college career would be short indeed if something didn’t change.

After moving to Orlando to work at Walt Disney World, I became a “non-traditional student” at the University of Central Florida. Non-traditional meaning that I fit in school between my job at Disney and as a husband at home. I remember well studying during my 15-minute breaks at the 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction, and, after being promoted to a supervisor position, sleeping with my head on my office desk after park closing because I had to be at school first thing the next morning. And I also remember my saint of a wife typing my term papers at 2 o’clock in the morning as I handed her each handwritten page as I completed it. Ah yes, the wonderful college years.

It took me seven years to complete my four year degree. My son Danny delights in telling me that a lot of people take seven years to finish their degrees – “They’re called doctors,” he says as he ducks whatever I was holding in my hand.

But I received more value from my years at UCF than I can ever repay. The vast majority of my professors were excellent, and helped me apply what I was learning not only to my future goals, but also to my day-to-day responsibilities at Disney World.

But a handful of moments stand out; usually a throw-away statement from a professor. The one that had the greatest effect on me, and I think applies more today than it did then, came from my Business Policies professor, Dr. Comish. He said:

“No matter what job you’re currently in or what job you get, always think of it as preparing you to go into business for yourself. And even if you don’t go into business for yourself, with that attitude you’ll add more value to any company you work for.”

Little did I know at the time that I would eventually start my own company, but I never forgot Dr. Comish’s words. Each experience I had at Disney was a wonderful training ground for running a business.

Whether it was creating an operating budget for Fantasyland, firing someone who I liked but just wasn’t working out, launching a division of the Disney Institute, or (my favorite) training cast members at the Disney University, I was learning things that provided a wonderful foundation for the business I now operate. And I feel confident that having an entrepreneurial attitude added at least some value to the Disney jobs I held along the way.

In today’s economy, I believe Dr. Comish’s statement is more important than ever. With job security at an all-time low, it only makes sense to learn continuously, add as much value as possible to your organization, and to never rest on your laurels. As my friend Simon T. Bailey says, we all need to be the CEO of “You, Inc.” More than ever, we all need to take responsibility for our own careers.

A few behaviors at the heart of the entrepreneurial mindset include:

1. Know how your company makes money – Understanding the details of your operation’s financials changes the way you look at the decisions that are made. And your input carries much more weight when you’re able to tie that input to financial goals. And in your own business, little principles like cash flow can make or break you.

2. Be a problem solver – Most organizations have more whiners than they can count. But problem solvers can usually be counted on the fingers of one hand. Organizations will do anything to hold onto true problem solvers. And if you do go into business for yourself, you’ll spend gobs of time solving problems. And those problems can cost you money out of your own pocket. Why not get the practice on someone else’s dime?

3. Do the jobs no one else wants to do – You know what I’m talking about. There are certain jobs or tasks that send employees running for the hills when the boss is looking for someone to step up. While you might not relish the assignment while you’re doing it, you’ve increased your value to the organization exponentially. And you’ll learn something that will be useful later (trust me).

4. Always be in learning mode – Opportunities for continuing education are everywhere in organizations. One highly successful business owner I met started his career as a clerk in a gas station. “I used that position to teach myself how to run a small business. I was always asking the owner questions and learning the details of the business.”

Many organizations offer FREE classes to employees through their corporate universities or training departments. Even if you have to take some of the programs on your own time, that’s too good an investment in your future to pass up.

5. Watch and learn from every boss you ever have – We’ve all had great bosses and horrible bosses. The one thing they all have in common is that we can learn from them. Whether you’re observing leadership behaviors that benefit the organization or behaviors that diminish the organization, a wonderful education can be had just by keeping your eyes and ears open.

As much as I loved working at Disney World, I love having my own business a thousand times more. But I wouldn’t have my business if it wasn't for the 20-year education I received at Disney World. And I also believe that I might not have approached that time in the same way if it wasn’t for Dr. Comish’s advice to always think of myself as preparing to start my own business.

Something to think about: What would you do differently in your job if you saw it as a training ground for running your own organization?