A college education is valuable, and I salute all the graduates who are heading out into the wonderful world of work. A degree is an important step toward career achievement.
But a sheepskin doesn't guarantee success. Without taking anything away from the value of higher education, some pretty famous "dropouts" have made the grade in business. For example:
- Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc., had no college education at all.
- Sir Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Brand of 360 companies, dropped out of school at age 16.
- Simon Cowell, American Idol host and music executive, left college early and eventually landed in the mailroom of a music publishing company.
- Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of IAC/InterActiveCorp, which owns Home Shopping Network, Ticketmaster, Match.com, and other companies, dropped out of UCLA after one semester.
- Kirk Kerkorian, real estate investor worth approximately $15 billion, left school in eighth grade.
- Ralph Lauren, fashion designer, dropped out of business school after two years.
- Rachael Ray, celebrity chef and TV personality, started her adult career working at Macy's candy counter.
- And the most famous Harvard dropout of all is Bill Gates, Microsoft mogul and philanthropist extraordinaire.
What common trait do they all share? The #1 attribute that employers look for: initiative. They all took ideas and put them into action. Some had a little experience that they translated into big business. Others trusted their gut instincts and went out on a limb. The best education money can buy won't necessarily include a class on initiative. So, dear graduates, hone this skill, because you will be competing against people whose formal education can't match yours -- but their go-getter attitude will propel them to the top.
As my friend, the late Jim Rohn said: "Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune."
One of the best compliments I can give when writing a reference letter is that the person takes initiative. Translation: the willingness to at least try, to take a risk, to give it their absolute best shot. When I recommend someone in those terms, a light goes on for the prospective employer.
Initiative is not a promise of perfect results. Sometimes it results in failure. Sometimes, a satisfactory, but not remarkable, outcome. Other times, the effort ends in a smashing success. An employee who can step up to the plate three runs down in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and two batters out, and envision a grand slam instead of a pop fly is the kind of player I want on my team. That employee will wait for just the right pitch and send it over the fence.
Don't worry if you weren't born knowing how to take initiative -- it can be learned. In fact, a lot of us learn it the hard way, getting stuck in a rut and trying to dig our way out. At some point, frustration sets in and we decide to take charge of the situation.
If that sounds like a challenge you are ready for, prepare yourself to:
Mackay's Moral: When you take initiative, there's no telling where it will take you.
Be creative. Consider different ways to approach the work you do. Brainstorm with your team, or lacking a large group, brainstorm by yourself. Write down even the most unconventional and seemingly impossible solutions. Always, always be open to new ideas.
Learn new skills. Identify what you want or need to learn to improve your worth. Set a goal to master a new skill with every project. It doesn't matter if that means learning another language or understanding a computer application. Just get yourself in the habit of adapting to the situation so you can be ready to contribute.
Do the legwork. You want to convince people your idea will work? Hit them with facts. Do your homework. Find supporting research. Talk to co-workers.
Don't sit on your ideas. Speak up if you have the idea and the supporting facts to back it up. Volunteer to lead the team or do the project yourself. Let your supervisors and co-workers know you are willing to take responsibility and evaluate progress, changing course if necessary.
Try, try again. If your one idea didn't get an ok, don't be discouraged. Keep looking for other ideas, or reinvent your idea to overcome objections. Demonstrate your willingness to adapt.