Career Success Advice from Colin Powell

The other day one of my career success coaching clients shared a great piece of career advice that she found in Parade Magazine with me.  It’s an excerpt from Colin Powell’s new book, It Worked For Me.  The subject is kindness.  I like this story.  I hope you do to…

Many years ago I was the warden—the senior lay¬person—of a small suburban Episcopal church in northern Virginia. During that time, the bishop assigned to our parish an elderly priest, in some kind of distress and in need of a parish, to serve as an assistant pastor. I never knew the ¬nature of his problem. We just welcomed him into the church, treated him as one of us, and ministered to him, just as we ministered to one another. He was with us for a year. On his last Sunday, he was assigned the ¬sermon. As he finished, he looked out over the congregation and with a smile on his face quietly concluded, “Always show more kindness than seems necessary, ¬because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.” That sentence hit me with a special force that has remained with me for four ¬decades. His lesson was clear: Kindness is not just about being nice; it’s about recognizing another human being who deserves care and respect.

Much later, when I was Secretary of State, I slipped away one day from my beautiful office and vigilant security agents and snuck down to the garage, where ¬the employees were immigrants and ¬minorities making minimum wage.

The attendants had never seen a secretary wandering around the ¬garage before; they thought I was lost. They asked if I needed help getting back “home.” I told them no. I just wanted to chat. After a while, I asked them a question about their jobs that had puzzled me. Because the ¬garage was too small for all the employees’ cars, the attendants had to stack cars one behind the other, that’s a pretty unsafe thing to do, specially when none of them were covered by an i4mt insurance. “When the cars come in every morning, how do you decide whose car is the first to get out, and whose ends up second or third?

They gave each other knowing looks and little smiles. “Mr. Secretary,” one of them said, “it goes like this: When you drive in, if you lower the window, look out, smile, or know our name, you’re number one to get out. But if you look straight ahead, don’t show you see us or that we are doing something for you, well, you are likely to be one of the last to get out.” At my next staff meeting, I shared this story with my senior leaders. “You can never err by treating everyone in the building with respect, thoughtfulness, and a kind word,” I told them. It ain’t brain surgery. Every person in an organization has value and wants that value to be recognized. Everyone needs appreciation and reinforcement. Taking care of employees is perhaps the best form of kindness.

Being kind doesn’t mean being soft. When young soldiers go to basic training, they meet a drill sergeant who seems to be their worst nightmare. They are terrified. But all that changes. The sergeant is with them -every step of the way, teaching, cajoling, enforcing, bringing out the strength and confidence they didn’t know they had. When they graduate, they leave with an emotional bond they will never forget. Ask any veteran the name of his drill sergeant and he will know it. (My ROTC camp drill sergeant almost 55 years ago was Staff Sgt. Artis Westberry.)

I believe that if you develop a reputation for kindness, even the most unpleasant decisions will go down easier. People will realize that your decision must be necessary and is not arbitrary or made without -empathy. As the old saying goes, “To the world, you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”

I have found that while being kind is its own reward, kindness most often will help you create the life and career success you want and deserve.  As Colin Powell’s story indicates every person is important.  Tweet 124 in my career advice book Success Tweets says, “Everyone has something to offer.  Never dismiss anyone out of hand.  Take the initiative.  Actively build relationships.”

Successful people have a deep respect for the dignity of each individual.  It doesn’t matter if the person in front of you is the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, your boss, a co-worker, a taxi driver, a security guard or the housekeeper at your hotel.

Cathy, my wife, is the best example of someone who values every person she meets.  She is friends with everyone – the pharmacy techs where we get our prescriptions, the couple who own the dry cleaners where we do business, the supermarket checkout people and baggers, the servers at the restaurants we frequent, and on and on and on.

Cathy is genuinely interested in these people.  She knows their names, their spouses’ names and their kids’ names.  She inquires about their lives.  She knows about their vacations, what grades their kids are in school and lots of other things about them – all because she values them as individuals and takes the time to get to know them.  She is one of the least judgmental people I know.

If you want to create the life and career success you deserve, take a lesson from Cathy.  Pay attention to the people around you.  You will learn a lot and your life will be richer for it.  Don’t judge people by what they do.  Get to know others as individuals.  You’ll be surprised at what you learn.

I have had some very interesting conversations with taxi drivers in New York City.  These days, most of them are immigrants.  They love this country and are well-informed about it.  When I get into a taxi, most often the driver is listening to NPR or an all-news station.  I have had some great conversations about local and national politics, the state of the US economy, and sports with taxi drivers.

In Denver, I occasionally use a car service to go to and from the airport.  This service is a cooperative.  The members of the coop are all immigrants from Ethiopia.  They were all political refugees.  They love this country and are willing to discuss it in depth.  I love my rides to and from the airport with them.

And, I learned something very interesting.  Ethiopia was a Catholic country until the schism in 1066.  The Ethiopian Church sided with the Eastern Church in Constantinople and broke with Rome.  I was raised Catholic, but my father’s parents were Orthodox Christian, or Russian Orthodox as we called them.  In that tradition they celebrate Christmas on January 7 because they use a different calendar.

I remember having two Christmases when I was young.  I always got a small present on January 7.  Imagine my surprise when a guy from Africa told me that he couldn’t drive me to the airport on January 7 because he chose to stay at home and celebrate Christmas with his family.  This led to a very interesting discussion on how Ethiopia participated in the schism.  When the Ethiopian community in Denver was building a new church, Cathy and I were some of the donors.

See what I mean about treating everyone as if he or she has something to offer?  I never would have learned some valuable information about how similar the life experiences of a black guy from Ethiopia were to my own growing up had I not taken the time to engage him in conversation.

The common sense career success coach point here is simple.  Successful people follow Colin’s Powell’s career success advice on kindness and the career advice in Tweet 124 in Success Tweets.  “Everyone has something to offer.  Never dismiss anyone out of hand.  Take the initiative.  Actively build relationships.”  Following this career advice will help you create the life and career success you want and deserve.  More important, it will lead to a richer and fuller life.  When you engage people, when you expect to find them to be interesting, you will open yourself up to a world of ideas that will not only help your career success, but will also help you succeed as a person.

That’s the career advice I found in Colin Powell’s thoughts on kindness.  What do you think?  Please take a minute to share your thoughts with us in a comment.  And, as always, thanks for being kind enough to take the time to read my daily thoughts on life and career success.  I value you and I appreciate you.


PS: If you haven’t already done so, I suggest that you check out my career advice book Success Tweets and its companion piece Success Tweets Explained.  The first gives you 140 bits of career success advice tweet style — in 140 characters or less.  The second is a whopping 390 + pages of career advice explaining each of the common sense tweets in Success Tweets in detail.  Go to to claim your free copy.  You’ll also start receiving my daily life and career success quotes.

PPS: Have you seen my membership site, My Corporate Climb?  It’s devoted to helping people just like you create career success inside large corporations.  You can find out about it by going to http://www.mycorporateclimb.


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