Reputation vs. What have you done for me lately?

I recently read an article in INC. Magazine titled 9 Beliefs of Remarkably Successful People, by Jeff Haden, and was struck by several of his key points.

In the article, which is well worth your reading, he points out a number of beliefs that will certainly set your ego-based brain thinking. A little reflection on each point would be a valuable exercise because you might discover something about yourself that you either like and need to emphasize, or don’t like and need to change.

One belief that struck me as particularly important is:

I have never paid my dues.
Dues aren’t paid, past tense. Dues get paid, each and every day. The only real measure of your value is the tangible contribution you make on a daily basis.

No matter what you’ve done or accomplished in the past, you’re never too good to roll up your sleeves, get dirty, and do the grunt work. No job is ever too menial, no task ever too unskilled or boring.

Remarkably successful people never feel entitled–except to the fruits of their labor.

We have all heard people say “I’ve paid my dues.” What this really means is that I have done a job that I didn’t enjoy, or that I now see as below me, and because of my past work I no longer have to do that task. The job should now be done by someone else. When I say “I’ve paid my dues,” I also mean that others, perhaps our boss or coworkers, should recognize my past contribution, my “history” in the organization, and give me credit for what I’ve done. It’s time for someone else to have their turn in the barrel.

The problem is, as Haden points out, history rarely counts.

Don’t get me wrong. Your history is incredibly important in creating your reputation. Your reputation is the mental picture others carry of you filed away in their heads waiting for just the right moment to bring your name to mind. It’s your reputation that opens doors of opportunity. It’s your reputation that gives people a positive or negative feeling about your skills, knowledge, and abilities.

But, it’s what you have done lately that maintains that reputation. You can have a long history of contributing to the company or organization, but if you are seen as no longer contributing, your prior reputation isn’t going to help.

If your goal is to be noticed, or to be seen as an asset to the organization, it is both the history of outstanding performance, and the current reality of continuing performance at an exceptional level that combine to unlock opportunity.

None of this is to suggest that you have to do every job in the office. Certainly not! That’s why there are many people in your organization. It takes lots of people, doing their jobs, to get things done. (For a little mind-twist on a related subject see the prior blog post 100% Responsibility.)

But, it is important to understand that when someone needs some help, or the work piles up and the whole system starts to grind to a halt, you are not exempt from pitching in, even if the job is menial, dirty, or boring.

In the end, no, you haven’t paid your dues. But, you certainly have created a reputation. I hope it’s a good one.


PS: It is probably important to note that there is a difference between your reputation and your character. For most of us the two are parallel. But, it is very possible to have a tarnished reputation while retaining an exceptional character.

Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. Abraham Lincoln

This possible polarity might be a good topic for a future blog post.

Also, you might find the prior blog post Changing Minds – The Importance of Character interesting.

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Peter Sperry

Successful people also recognize when it is time to move on. They never develop an “I am too good for menial labor” attitude but when the menial becomes the norm, they start looking for better opportunities. Entirely too many supervisors keep going back to the same people who will take on any task, no matter how trivial or mind numbingly boring, without complaint and then are shocked and disappointed when their go-to person leaves for a job where their true skills are more appreciated.

Jim Elliott

Hello Peter. It’s interesting that you would say that. Good point. I remember many conversations with top leaders where we discussed the need to give the “go-to” people a break, and create a new “go-to” team. Leaders need to take the time to give others a chance to show what they can do. Thanks for the comment.

Bob Ragsdale

Great post Jim. The “I’ve paid my dues” mentality is one of the most unattractive and difficult workplace attitudes to work with – it is an indicator of a closed mind, a dead end of development. It can be quite a challenge to get an individual that is in this mode to move their thinking from past performance to future opportunities.

I like the suggestion of how character and reputation plays into the current perception of a person’s contribution. Perhaps a conversation along these lines can help them see themselves as others do and help them move to being a more positive contributor in the present and future.

Diane Lucas

Very interesting post! Peter’s point is well taken – we usually reward hard workers with more to do – I know I can count on them to get it done, so I take it from the slackers who have disappointed me again. It is definitely the “Navy Way”.

Robert Wallin

We all have plenty of dues-paying ahead of us in California; the idea is to be committed to build a solid foundation of service.

Jim Elliott

Thanks Bob, SRoberts, Diane, and Robert. Good points everyone. I can feel that there is some energy around the topic of “go-to” people and how we use them (or how we get used). Do any of you have advice for either managers or those “go-to” people on how to deal with the over use of this important resource?

Peter Sperry

Jim — I think supervisors and executives need to continually review how they are using their staff. No one should be too good or have paid enough dues to get out of pitching in with low level tasks when necessary but if the GS-12 CPA accountant is spending significant amounts of time doing basic journal entries; the organization has a very expensive, very bored bookkeeper with a fancy title who will be looking to move to another agency. An SESer who considers themselves too senior to complete a basic requisition form everyonce in awhile needs an attitude adjustment. If they are doing this several times a day, every day, the organization has an expensive dissatisfied clerk. Supervisors should consider why they hired or promoted these individuals in the first place and use them for that purpose. Expect midgrade and senior personel to pitch in with the grunt work when necesssary but also consider hiring some grunts if that sort of work is piling up..