That (Corporate) Thing You Do

Occasionally, I get to sit next to nice strangers when I’m aboard a bus or a plane. These are people who emit good vibes that tell you, “Hey, I enjoy a good conversation.”

Last weekend, on my way back from Penang to Subang – I was seated next to a middle-aged man whose eyes showed years of experience and displayed a certain kind of warmth. He peered at the “Success” magazine that I bought for the short journey and immediately put one and one together.

“Working in Penang?” he asked, flashing his smile that made the sides of his eyes wrinkle.

“No, visiting my folks. I work in KL,” I replied. We exchanged brief information about where we work and what we do, and it turns out that I was speaking to someone quite prominent from one of the Big Fours – dressed in a cotton shirt, capri shorts and some really comfortable looking loafers – he could pass off as just anyone, especially by taking a low-cost Malindo flight. He was in Penang to attend one of his staff’s wedding.

He shared with me that upon graduating one of the best local secondary schools, he was given a choice to become either an engineer, an accountant or a pilot. He chose the second because that was what his father advised him to do. I was more amused by the fact that he didn’t choose to become a pilot – and he said he often asked himself that question too. In fact, he wanted to become a fighter pilot at one point. I don’t remember exactly what prompted him to choose accountancy, but I do remember that he has no regrets whatsoever for being who he is today.

Growing up in an environment surrounded by entrepreneurs and business people (peers and adults alike), apart from my parents, I don’t normally get good advice about making it in the corporate world. In fact, some people get so carried away about owning their own ventures and becoming their own bosses that they unintentionally sometimes put down normal, ordinary folk like me. And only a handful of managers and superiors that I have come across in work so far have been truly inspiring. The rest? I can only wish I don’t become like them in the near future.

I asked my new found friend what was his secret to success. He told me that it’s not really a secret. The secret to success is to be technically competent. Meaning, be good at what you do. Simple as that. People can come your way and try to belittle what you do, or even who you are, but the quality of your work and the depth of your knowledge can never be challenged, because at the end of the day, the results speak for themselves. Work hard while you’re still young – not just because you have the energy, but your brain is still able to absorb information and skills at a higher capacity. Don’t take your monthly paycheck for granted – it is, after all, what puts the bread on the table for a majority of people in the world.

And as for company politics? Stay out of it as much as you can. Even when you’re a manager or someone in a high position – hallway gossips and people manipulation are things you can live without. And always be loyal to the people above you. Develop good habits from the start – they will prove to be very useful when you start dealing with people more and your soft skills take center stage.

I asked him one last question. Why did he stick to his first (and only) company for so long? Wasn’t he headhunted by other big firms? He smiled and shrugged.

“Of course I was headhunted, many times in fact. But in this industry, if I leave and join another company I’ll still be dealing with the same thing. I might as well build my own value in where I’ve started and get to where I am today. Plus, my company is very good to me and I love what I do.”

The 45-minute flight proved to be way too short this time.  Before I knew it, we shook hands and bade goodbye. As I took my luggage from the overhead compartment, ready to leave – he tapped me on my arm, pointed at me and gave me a thumbs-up sign.

I don’t really know what that meant, but it sure made the rest of my day.

One Reply to “That (Corporate) Thing You Do”

  1. “I love what I do.”

    That, I’m beginning to see, is not something to hunt for or strive to achieve, but simply have it be true, right here, right now. Thank you for sharing your 45 min chat with this stranger. A serendipitous mentor, ja? 🙂

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