“I started my career in a broom closet,” Dave Alpern told me. “I was an unpaid intern, so I can relate to being lowest person on the totem pole.” That career began in 1993, and he’s still with the same employer, but he’s moved out of the broom closet. Dave now sits in the president’s office at Joe Gibbs Racing, the winningest team in NASCAR history. And he has some good pointers for:
- Graduates and job seekers
- Those in jobs that “don’t fit”
- Those feeling unappreciated at work
A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to come across an advance copy of Taking the Lead, Dave’s book on principles for business success. It’s an insightful read – great wisdom and entertaining narrative delivered in the context of the fast-paced NASCAR world. (The Tyndale book is scheduled for release June 8.)
Last week, I had the good fortune to talk to Dave for a few minutes, and I discovered that he has a lot of solid counsel for anyone seeking a first job or a job change – or how to manage a current job.
“It starts with being really good at what you do and working with all your heart,” he said. “And that means being diligent.”
He hasn’t forgotten the broom closet. Here are a few things he began to cultivate even back then: “Alpern’s Advice” (my title, not his):
- Be great at the little things. Never say, “That’s not my job.”
- Be you-focused, not me-focused. Make others look better.
- Be indispensable. Deliver more value than they pay you for.
- Be an encourager. Smile and be positive with every interaction.
- Be a fountain, not a drain – a giver, not a taker.
Perhaps I should have titled these bullet points “Alpern’s Attitude Adjusters.” The principle of a positive attitude is certainly reflected in every one of them. For Dave personally, his Christian faith instructs his attitude and his actions in the workplace, and that was true even in the broom closet. Now as president of Joe Gibbs Racing, he still practices those enduring principles.
His pointers can be nuggets of gold for first-time job seekers and seasoned workplace veterans as well. However, Dave cautions especially young job seekers about one of today’s common challenges that could work to their disadvantage.
“By the time today’s kids get to the workplace, their whole life has been about competition,” he observed. “It’s compete for a grade point average, compete for a sports team, compete to get into a good college.” That kind of pressure leads some toward what he calls the me-focused outlook, even if it’s through no fault of their own. Why would they be expected to think about serving others?
“Now as a decision maker in a company,” he added, “I can tell you the most valuable people to me are the servant leaders, the people who…make everyone around them better.”
In reality, competition may not be the singular culprit, but it probably does contribute to a setting in which children are often allowed to conclude that they are the center of the universe. And that mindset will not survive well in any workplace environment – just a caution to take Dave’s insights seriously.
During our conversation, he reminded me of one of my favorite metaphors from Taking the Lead.
“I have a chapter in my book titled ‘Be a Fountain, Not a Drain,’” he said. “What does that look like? Are you the person trying to make everyone else better? Then you’re a fountain breathing life into every interaction instead of sucking the life out of it.”
In one overarching theme, Dave is careful to emphasize that whatever career one is in, patience is a critical key to success. Patience with coworkers. Patience with the boss. Patience with oneself. Patience with the unknown future.
“I hope my book will resonate with people whose career path is not going the way they anticipated,” Dave said. “For me, each step along the way was often frustrating. I’d think, ‘If I could just see what happens next, I’d be more faithful with where I am now.’”
But that’s not the way it works. Patience is obviously a virtue that serves all parties well. That takes me back to Dave’s dependence on his faith. He cites Paul’s list of positive character traits in his letter to the Galatians (3:22-23): “… the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
If there’s a nugget in a nutshell to summarize Dave’s insights for finding success in a job – and in life 24/7 – it’s probably his heart expressed in these words: “You know, it’s treating people like a soul and not a transaction. It’s just about the way you treat people.”