Editor’s note: Donald Thompson, a serial entrepreneur and investor, writes an exclusive column about leadership, equality, entrepreneurship and management. His posts are published on Wednesdays.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In learning and in leadership, just like in video games, there are cheat codes to getting what you want faster and more efficiently. I recently gave a talk to a group of working MBA students at NC State’s Poole College of Management, where I shared a handful of the biggest cheat codes I have learned in my 20-plus years of leading, growing and selling firms. 

You see, I do not have an MBA. I have what I like to call a hustler’s MBA instead. One cup of coffee at a time, one magazine article at a time, I learned my way from sales rep to CEO by keeping my mind open and not being afraid to ask for mentorship and advice from people with track records of success. 

Here, I want to share those same cheat codes with you, so you can improve your own leadership and advance in your career. If you find these tips helpful, follow me on Linkedin and tune into The Donald Thompson Podcast for more. I love helping other hungry professionals reach for their own dreams.  

  • Share a cup of coffee.

A cup of coffee is usually a very low-cost item, but if you’re having that cup of coffee with an executive who wants to mentor young people, then that cup of coffee has a much higher value. Most business leaders find it difficult to say no to competitive learners on their rise, because they see themselves in you. It doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter where you come from, doesn’t matter what age or ethnicity you are, it is that hunger for a higher level of achievement that will relate you and your goals and dreams to most leaders you come in contact with. 

And here’s the important piece. The reason you’re not already having more cups of coffee with people who can help you is your own fear of asking, not the percentage of people who would say yes to helping you. The leadership cheat code in a cup of coffee is that you should be asking dozens of people you meet whether they would be willing to share a cup of coffee and let you pick their brain to talk about the future, talk about business, and talk about what they’ve learned. Over the years in my career, I’ve probably bought a thousand dollars’ worth of coffees, but I’ve gotten a million dollars’ worth of insight and information.

As a leader, you should be building your business networks before you actually need them. When you need your network, you can sound like a beggar. But when you grow your network proactively, you become part of an ecosystem that you’ve cultivated over the years, one cup of coffee at a time. 

  • End every meeting 5 minutes early.

In my early career, when I was a sales representative for a software company, I had an important meeting with an executive who ran partnerships for Adobe, and we finished our meeting early. We had an hour on the calendar, which is a huge amount of time for an executive, and we finished in about 45 minutes. And he said to me, “Don, I feel like you’re striving to do big things. Is there anything I can do to be helpful to you?” And I thought “Well sure! I have questions. Talk to me about how you actually make decisions in large companies. Talk to me about the political environment in a billion-dollar organization. As a young salesperson, what could I understand about that?” And he walked me through the answers. 

What I learned from that experience is that, if I end my meetings with executives or other influential people five minutes early, I have time to say “Would it be okay if I asked you just a question or two for my own growth and personal development?” I’ve never had someone tell me no to that. 

Doing that over a period of years, here’s what occurred. I learned a lot, and then my stature rose with the people I was talking to because all leaders like to feel like they are smart, important and valued. So, yes, they’re giving me information that I can use immediately, but also, that leader gets a chance to share their advice with me, so we’re more connected over and above the particular reason that we are having the call. 

  • Use 15% of your time to be a good teammate. 

You won’t get anywhere that matters without an amazing team. A lot of executive coaches, business journals and online articles about leadership are centered around teaching leaders how to be great individual leaders. That’s important, but it isn’t enough. Being a good teammate is also super important, because the way that corporations are built now, the people who will select you to be a leader are the people who are all around you. And you’re going to need those people to reach the next level, and the level after that.

Make sure you’re always, always working on honing your interpersonal communication and your people skills, regardless of where you currently exist within the organization. Naturally, when we’re working in a room – whether in a boardroom or a conference room or wherever – we try to figure out the hierarchy of the room, and then we direct our questions to the most senior person there. Many men, by default, tend to do it based on gender. And again, I’m speaking to some generalities based on my 30 years of experience. But the issue with that habit is you don’t actually know who the leader relies on, and that’s the person you’re actually trying to influence. Things are not always as they seem on the surface. What you’re trying to understand is the power structures that are in place for you to get what you want or need.

Most of us are naturally selfish. We do things because they affect us in a positive way. That’s not a negative thing, but it needs to be in balance. I’ll use myself as an example. For me, I had to understand why being selfless was a helpful skill in order to get the things I wanted. I can’t move you to work harder, better, faster if I don’t know what motivates you. And how do I know what motivates you if I’ve never spent time with you, if all of our conversations have been transactional?

People will do hard things. They will take on tough challenges if they know how they will benefit in the future. As a leader, you have to get good enough at your job that you can be helpful to others who want to be great at their jobs. Be good enough at what you do that you can do your job in 85% of the time that you are working, and you have the other 15% of the time to learn something new and help your teammates. 

Here’s the rockstar stuff. This is where the money’s at. This is where the promotions are. If you can do your job in 85% of your work time, you have 15% of the time to help your boss achieve something they couldn’t do without you. Use that extra time to learn, to grow, to ask more questions, to figure out if there’s a stretch assignment that you can take on, or to tap one of your teammates and say, “Is there anything I can review for you? How can I be helpful?” That’s a winning brand. 

About the Author

Donald Thompson is co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement which offers an employee-experience product suite that personalizes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through data, technology, and expert-curated content. Their microlearning platform, Microvideos by The Diversity Movement, was recently named one of Fast Company’s “2022 World Changing Ideas.” With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach, Donald also serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. His autobiography, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, is available for pre-order now. Connect with or follow him on Linkedin to learn more.

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