If you had access to a time machine that you could use to fix only one thing in your life, what would you use it to do?
I once thought I had the answer to that question: turning down a job that caused me to move cross country, almost cost me my health, my family, and my entire career. My stress level was so high that I was developing early symptoms of a stroke. What I once considered a mistake, I now view as a gift.
Before this job came along, I was happy and comfortable in Indiana, working for a company that sold high-end bath amenities to luxury hotels. When a skin care company in Southern California recruited me to help them make a move into the luxury hospitality market, I jumped at the chance. I packed my family and belongings and moved to Los Angeles.
It became clear quite quickly that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into, and it was obvious they had no idea who they were getting as an employee. The family-owned company I worked for was not interested in new ideas, while the branding was completely wrong for the luxury market they were targeting. What’s worse, I felt like I could never adapt to their company culture. Almost every employee was a close personal friend of the married cofounders. I wondered why they hired me, and I have no doubt they thought the same.
It may sound trite, but negative experiences tend to yield learning opportunities. It turned out that this near-catastrophic experience led to my biggest opportunity. Below are three primary leadership skills I developed at the worst job I ever had.
I clearly didn’t belong with that company, and I share the blame in it not working out. During the interview process, I didn’t ask the tough, direct questions that would have helped me realize it was the wrong job for me. At the time of my interview, I was working for a direct competitor, and my new potential employer was hesitant to provide information that I needed to evaluate the position.
- Where are the products made?
- How is the market currently accepting the brand?
- May I see a complete list of your portfolio of products?
Now I know: Never be afraid to ask the tough questions, regardless of the situation.
After I was hired, I sent samples of my new company’s products to some trusted contacts who I knew would give me their unfiltered opinion. The message was crystal clear across the board: The packaging looked cheap, while the product felt cheap. I tactfully presented my findings to the owners. They responded: “We don’t necessarily agree with that feedback.”
One doesn’t agree or disagree with feedback. Feedback just is. The owners were getting frustrated with my inability to sell products I knew to be poorly suited for luxury hotels. The market was loudly saying it didn’t want the products. Yet the more I relayed this message to the owners, the more miserable my life became.
This experience gave me the tough skin needed to face market criticism. Believe it or not, criticism is a good thing. When a prospect is constructively commenting on your product or service, it’s because he or she has some level of interest in what you’re offering. If they didn’t, then they wouldn’t bother sharing their thoughts. While not all criticism is useful, if you hear a consistent message from the market, it behooves you to listen and listen closely.
Unless your name carries brand equity, don’t make your company all about you. Is your name in the stratosphere of Elizabeth Taylor of White Diamonds or Dr. Dre of Beats By Dre? If not, the harsh reality is this: No one cares about you. The skin care company in Los Angeles based its entire brand story around one of the owners, and it greatly hindered their success.
Make your brand about your target market. People buy based on emotion, so how does your product or service make their life better, bigger, and more enjoyable? Your product must either solve a problem or fulfill bigger aspirations that the prospect holds.
I hated going to work when I knew I was failing. My family resented my long hours and my attitude. My doctors were raising red flags about my health. Every day I felt like a dog getting kicked. I realize now that what made me so miserable at the time was the perfect education for the entrepreneur I am today.
After I finally left that company, I had an opportunity to join forces with a group of partners interested in creating a new, American-made luxury brand. As it turned out, the large quantity of feedback I had gathered from customers was immensely helpful once I had the opportunity to apply it. My new business is growing every day, thanks to a willingness to listen to the market–and a very memorable bad job.
Derek Hunter specializes in selling and marketing products that combine luxury, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility. His career in luxury hospitality began at Gilchrist & Soames, once one of the world’s most prestigious hotel-amenities brands. Derek is now the national sales director for William Roam, creators of luxury, 100% American-made hotel amenities.
Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprising the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.