Although sometimes it appears to the contrary, most leaders, business owners, and entrepreneurs agree that no one really succeeds alone. Even the most talented and driven person benefits from having good mentorship and connections, or at least from having the occasional door opened. The big problem, as many ambitious people discover in the early phases of their development, is proving to gatekeepers that you deserve access and acceptance.
Marc Blackman has been proving himself for 24 years. You might think him lucky since he married the daughter of a successful entrepreneur. But making the marriage was insufficient to earn immediate respect in business.
The company was Gold Eagle Co., a 60+-year-old Chicago-based manufacturer of performance chemicals and surface treatments. Blackman obviously did not start out in the respected CEO role he holds today.
Blackman recalls, "So I left a good sales career at E&J Gallo winery to join another family business." He knew that all eyes would be on him from the start, waiting to see if he would become an asset or just dead weight. He would have to do more than anyone else to prove his worth, and he would have to do it every day. "Nobody knew anything about me, except that I'd married into the family business." 10 years later, he is running that business.
"In the end," he says, "It actually isn't that different from earlier professional and personal experiences. There are a few simple practices that demonstrate your worth. Do them well and doors will open." Here are Blackman's 10 recommended practices for proving yourself to the gatekeepers of your success.
- Know and show your strengths.
"I knew what I was good at," says Blackman, "I have approachability, friendliness, and inquisitiveness along with business acumen and knowledge of consumer product sales." He saw that Gold Eagle, a company with a powerful 85-year history in Chicago, wanted to stay true to the core values that it developed as a small storefront during the Great Depression. It also needed to chart a way forward. Blackman demonstrated how his people skills and business acumen could help them reach the future while honoring the past.
- Be genuine, and show that you deserve your good fortune.
Early in his tenure at Gold Eagle, Blackman realized that some would see his role in the company as the result of plain luck. If he could show integrity, honesty, and passion, however, they might decide to appreciate him instead of resenting him. "I can't be anything other than me!" he quips, "So I just tried to bring my best qualities to the table every day." The better he was appreciated, the more his colleagues came to respect him and believe his good fortune was earned.
- Know your stuff.
Gold Eagle might be a family business, but it is a business-first family business. Blackman saw the need to quickly educate himself about all aspects of manufacturing. "Every day is a chance to learn and to prove yourself," he recalls, "I continually learn about chemical formulations, EPA compliance, research and development, human resources, packaging, operations, quality control, distribution, customer needs, and marketing." Becoming an insider means developing insider information and expertise.
- Surround yourself with strength.
There's an old adage that says, "We are the company we keep." That includes the professionals you choose to surround yourself with at work and in your networks. "Build strong teams, and empower them to do their jobs," advises Blackman, "and remember that teams don't exist on an org chart; they thrive by trust, empowerment, autonomy, cohesiveness, and ultimately, daily fulfillment." You will get more done, and the keepers of the keys will see that you attract worthy companions.
- Let culture wear the crown.
At a "traditional" manufacturer like Gold Eagle, cultures can collide within the organization at all levels, especially in moments of transition. As they recruited younger talent, adopted digital marketing, and gained competence in e-commerce, Blackman knew he could not take an autocratic approach. He had to get buy in and unite the workforce. "I do believe culture is king. My role is to prove that a 'People First' approach is key to success," he argues.
- Keep an eye on the future.
Today, most business climates change quickly. "I wanted to prepare for the future," says Blackman, "so I created a Next Generation Advisory Board (NGAB) comprised of young, high achieving professionals and business leaders. A key role of the NGAB is to 'reverse mentor' me and our executive team." Thought leadership takes a company into the future, and sometimes that means listening to insights from new voices as well as established wisdom.
- Make your mission meaningful to stakeholders.
History and tradition were important at Gold Eagle, and Blackman understood that his core purpose must honor that. "There's a real drive to preserve and protect the things people love--not just products, but well-balanced work and home life, community engagement, continuous self-improvement and financial well being." In shaping the company's mission, he committed to prioritizing those things while promoting growth. Long-term employees and customers could see that what mattered to them, also mattered to Gold Eagle and Blackman's team.
- Find a shared "why."
Why are Blackman and his company successful? Because a culture has been created where people believe what he believes. Believing in shared values, mission and purpose--a "corporate why" --is proof that people will pull together and rally behind leaders they like, respect and trust. Blackman proves this every day.
- Set the tone for embracing challenges.
Change is a constant, and success depends on taking chances. But those who have already "made it into the club" may be resistant. So Blackman believes that showing you are "comfortable being uncomfortable" is a powerful way to prove yourself to others who are complacent. "Exemplify how every failure can be a learning experience. If you fall short, articulate how that will motivate you for the next time. Try again."
- Show both gratitude and preparedness.
"At times, I've been in awe of entrepreneurs who have started their company and shared their experiences with me. I've been so fortunate to be part of such a successful, longstanding company," he acknowledges. Blackman has been careful to acknowledge their help and influence. But with the rapidly changing business climate, he knows that these mentors and role models expect him to step up. They want to see their tutelage put to good use, and that he is ready for any challenge.