My First Job: Getting From A Closet To The C-Suite In Two Years

If paying your dues was a rite of passage that any new jobholder had to endure, then I was determined to pass through this tradition as quickly as possible.

I had first arrived in Hollywood in 1968 having been recruited to Columbia Pictures out of New York University Graduate School of Business where I was pursuing an MBA degree. As a lowly assistant, my so-called office was nothing more than a very long converted closet where if I stretched my arms out, my hands would touch each wall. I was one of many equally ambitious and seemingly interchangeable individuals holding the same position.

My question was how to distinguish myself from the competition and accelerate my ascension up the career ladder. I found my answer in solving a problem that the senior executives didn’t even realize they had.

One of my early responsibilities at the studio was to deliver documents to executive sessions of Columbia Pictures’ top brass. During one of these errands I overheard several of the top cronies throw out names of possible directors for a new movie they were considering making. I knew even then when any movie is to be made, the most critical decision is who the director might be. This choice was currently being decided between three candidates when the central figure at the table announced that, “Yesterday, I was enjoying a tuna fish sandwich with one particular filmmaker who I believe was available.”

How could the whole criteria to choose a filmmaker be based on a tuna fish sandwich and availability?! What does a tuna fish sandwich have to do with the competencies and experiences required to be a top director? I knew there had to be a better way to make this crucial decision.

Even in these pre-internet days, I had a sense that information was currency, so I set out to organize the data about all of the Hollywood directors. I covered one of the long walls with cork and using thousands of colored stick pins and labels, I graphed all of the criteria that was key to making a decision regarding which filmmaker to use and why. The data was completely accessible to anybody coming into my office and included core information such as availability, propensity for staying on budget, strengths like comedy, action or drama and on and on.

Like a giant visual Wikipedia, everyone coming or going could add to it, take from it, sort it, and cross reference it against other categories to help them make the best directorial choice.

Without realizing it, I’d constructed a launch pad for my career by giving concrete form to the call to action of my tuna sandwich epiphany—the story I’d tell to every visitor who asked what I was doing with this giant board of directors. I then surrendered control of the directors’ board, allowing my listeners to embrace it and own it. One person told another, who told another. It was like a moth to the flame. Everyone was participating and they became viral advocates of my story, as well. And my star steadily rose. In roughly two years, I was head of the studio.

This experience demonstrated to me three characteristics appropriate to shining the light on yourself as a fast-track employee.

  1. Aspiration

    – Managed ambition is a powerful driver that can generate breakthrough ideas, processes and protocols. Complacency is an anathema in any organization.

  2. Inspiration

    – Thinking outside the proverbial box to develop solutions that brand you as innovative is a distinguishing characteristic for career growth.

  3. Perspiration

    – No one succeeds without “sweat equity.” Here, that sweat means giving that extra effort, turning ideas into action, and demonstrating your ability and capability.

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