During my drive into Massachusetts on Wednesday morning, I listened to Adam Braun on The Art of Charm. Adam is the founder of Pencils of Promise and, more recently, MissionU, the latter an attempt at re-defining college. I heard him talk about this previously on The School of Greatness and EO Fire as well, but this one stood out not so much because of MissionU itself, although it is interesting, but from something he mentioned along the way.

After talking about the idea of acting like an executive from the outset in a company, even if you are not one, Adam talked about how he had a meeting coming up with a CEO from a big company. It was a pretty important meeting, as you might imagine, so he wanted to make sure the stage was set to make it as good as possible. He has an employee that he describes as an “absolute rock star,” who the night before the meeting sent an unsolicited e-mail with a list of questions that would be helpful for all people across the organization.

Adam said, “I’m not going to look at that and say, ‘He’s trying to take my job.’ Instead, I’m going to say ‘Oh my God, how thoughtful, he took 20 minutes of his time and mapped out how I can be most effective in a meeting without me asking him to do so. I want him to lead others.'” He went on to note that it is employees like that who you want to move up in the organization.

In many companies, sending an e-mail like that might really seem like a bold move. I am of the impression that a lot of CEOs would at best reluctantly take the e-mail seriously, let alone incorporate thoughts from it into the game plan for a meeting. Part of that is because it is unlikely the CEO has a relationship established with the person, as is the case in Adam’s story.

I often read in articles about job interviews that one almost has to be careful not to appear too good or assertive with the manager so you don’t come off like you are aiming for their job. I always found that to be odd, because you would think a manager would like to have someone to succeed him/her once they move up into another role. Of course, there is very often a divergence between theory and reality, something engineers know all too well.

Even if you have to dial it back a bit in the interview – we can debate whether or not this is a good strategy as well as the issues involved with it another time – once on the job, you have to be all about creating value. While you will presumably be hired to create value primarily in a defined fashion, that does not have to be the limit. In past companies I have worked for, I took an active role in college recruiting in addition to my engineering work. Companies often have committees for various activities or special events as well, and these are also opportunities.

But there is more than that. If you’re at the lowest rung of the ladder, you don’t have to be constrained by the definition of your job. You have to do your job, of course, but you can do more than that. You can think bigger, or as an article I remember reading a while back talked about (and this is adapted from a book), think like an owner instead of an employee. In fact, nowadays it’s a reality of the world that we all owe it to ourselves to think more like a business owner than an employee.

And I suspect this also cuts to the heart of what MissionU is ultimately about as well, because colleges mainly teach us how to be employees, not business owners. This puts us at a disadvantage for a lot of reasons that I will surely touch on later, because this has been on my mind quite a bit in recent years. Less than a decade ago, upon hearing a consultant say that you must do this if you want to be a consultant, I stopped thinking like an employee and started thinking like a business owner.

I will be interested to see what happens with MissionU and others that spring up in a similar vein. In the meantime, I hope you check out the podcast and enjoy it like I did.

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