How to Succeed
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About a year ago, I was sitting in my office and a registered letter arrived for me. The letter was from a large financial institution saying they could no longer lend me funds to provide student loans, and they would stop lending to me within the next four weeks. I had grown my student loan company into a large business over the previous few years and was doing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans annually.
From my office, I looked out and saw at least 10 very nice people whom I liked a great deal sitting at their desks. I looked across the street and saw the 15,000 square foot building the company recently purchased for almost $7 million for the student loan company. Across that street, at that very moment, teams of contractors were working to build a room to house a server farm and a $250,000 phone system. At one time, I’d imagined the student loan company would employ over 500 people in our California office alone. This did not include our offices in Utah and India. The company appeared to have a very bright future.
In that moment I sat and observed our bustling Los Angeles headquarters: the FedEx man was talking to the receptionist as he dropped off the day’s student loan applications, employees were coming out of the kitchen, and a Xerox salesperson was in the lobby, ready to discuss adding features to a $700,000 high speed printer we had recently purchased to send letters to prospective borrowers – we had recently purchased a warehouse and filled it with all sorts of printing equipment, so we could send sales letters to millions of people around the country.
As I watched all of this, the world seemed to slow down. I looked out into the office and saw so many happy people. I almost felt like crying because I knew their lives were about to change.
I’d heard about the credit crisis in the United States and was seeing it firsthand. I knew the economy was in serious trouble, but I did not realize how bad it would be. I could not believe our funding for providing student loans was about to dry up. For days, I called around to various financial institutions all over the country and they, too, had no money to loan. In one case, I set up a meeting with an important banker, and on the day of the meeting he called to cancel because he had just been fired.
All around me I started seeing bankers and others with whom I had developed relationships in the past drop off the face of the earth. Pretty soon I realized there was no money for me to lend. Every day I heard about another student loan company failing.
In reality, this story is not about me, it is about you. There is something you need to understand about your job and the work you do right now: it could change at any moment.
-Your responsibilities and daily duties could end just like that.
-Businesses can end just like that.
-Your job can end just like that.
Whatever you are doing right now could come to a crashing halt. You never know when this may happen, but it does, and it happens a lot.
One Saturday I was driving through Agoura Hills and Thousand Oaks, California, on my way to look at some tropical fish. There are giant office parks in those cities that were built by Countrywide Mortgage for their operations. Many of these gleaming, new buildings now stand abandoned. No one works in them now, whereas probably not even a year earlier thousands of people had been reporting to work each day in these buildings. Who knows where those people went? There must have been countless families whose lives took a dramatic turn for the worse when those jobs disappeared.
When I learned about the dramatic shifts occurring in our student loan business, I did what I believed was the right thing, and tried to transfer everyone into other roles. The student loan business is similar to the mortgage business in that during its boom made lots of money. In fact, people with no more than a high school degree could have made over $100,000 a year giving people simple advice over the phone about refinancing their loans.
Many of the employees I’d hired who’d earned so much money during the student loan boom had never earned more than $12 an hour before they joined us. For some of them, it was their first job. I had employees who were 18 years old who were making well over $60,000 a year. After several days of searching for alternative funding sources, I set out to save everyone’s job in my student loan business. Together with a few other managers, I found alternative positions within our companies, with upward potential, which took advantage of people’s various skills. I announced these changes one Tuesday afternoon.
By the end of the day, more than 50 percent of the student loan representatives had simply quit and walked off the job. By the end of the week, more than 80 percent were gone. By the end of the month, only a few were left. Eight weeks later, only two were left. Those two are now gone. The two who lasted the longest were given different jobs; however, they never applied themselves in their new jobs. It was as if they refused to learn something new. Their jobs and responsibilities changed dramatically, and as soon as this occurred, they gave up and left.
As people walked out the door, they made statements like, “I made $82,000 last year. Why should I risk making only $40,000 next year?” Incredibly, several of these people could not find better jobs elsewhere. One of our highest-performing student loan employees now works for minimum wage at a Dairy Queen. Had she stayed with us, she would have continued to do very well, only in another job.
The point I am trying to make is that you need to be ready for change in your job. Your job can change in a heartbeat. People should never hold on to the past. You need to be ready for the future, and whatever shifts it may bring.
I had a fascinating discussion one Saturday night about successful people. A friend and I were talking about billionaires like Kirk Kerkorian, Ron Burkle, and others. One point I found quite interesting was the most successful people usually find opportunity when the market is down. There are a lot of opportunities to seize when businesses and people seem to be at their weakest.
In the events surrounding our student loan company, I did not want to let a single person go, and had hoped they all would stay. I created opportunities of which they could have taken advantage. Whoever you are, it’s likely at some point you will work for an employer who’s facing dire economic conditions, and is forced to change.
I have some advice for you. Walk into your boss’s office and tell him or her you are ready to change with the company and do whatever it takes to keep working there. Find opportunities where others see obstacles. There are opportunities everywhere if you are ready to grab them.
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