Ten Things You Need to Do if You Were Hired Today

Photo: Thomas Northcut

This is a cross-post from James Altucher‘s blog Altucher Confidential. His previous appearances on the Freakonomics blog can be found here. Last week, James wrote about the Ten Reasons You Need to Quit Your Job.

The woman right next to me was alive one second, then a taxi came up on the sidewalk of 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Avenue, hit her and veered off, and now the woman was dead. This happened on the first or second day of my job at HBO. I tried to call 911 on the payphone (there were still payphones in August, 1994), and then I had to go. The woman was dead.

And I had to go to work.

I loved HBO like I would love a parent. I wanted them to approve of me. And kiss me as I went to sleep at night.

Before I got the job offer to work there, I would watch HBO all day long. My friend Peter and I would watch HBO or MTV for 10 hours straight. I’d go over to his house around 1pm in the afternoon, and by 10pm we would look at each other and say, “What the hell did we just do.” Everything from the The Larry Sanders Show on HBO to Beavis & Butthead on MTV. We couldn’t stop.  I loved the product. I wanted to work there.

10 Rules If You Are Hired Today

Rule  No. 1: Love the product. You have to love the current output of the company. If you work at HBO, love the shows. Watch every single show. No excuses. If you work at WD-40, know every use of WD-40. Make up a few more that nobody ever thought of. If you work at Otis Elevators, understand all the algorithms for how the elevator decides which floors to stop on when. If you work at Goldman Sachs, read every book on the history, study every deal they’ve done, know Lloyd Blankfein’s favorite hobbies and how he rose through the ranks.  You have to love the product the way Andre Agassi loves playing tennis or Derek Jeter loves playing baseball.

When I started at HBO, I would every day borrow VHS tapes from their library. I watched every show going ten years back. In my spare time, I’d stay late and watch TV. I’d watch all the comedians. I even watched the boxing matches that initially made HBO famous. Which leads me to…

Rule No. 2: Know the History. When my first company, Reset, was acquired by a company called Xceed, I learned the history of the mini-conglomerate that Xceed was created out of. There was a travel agency for corporations. I visited them in California. There was a burn gel company. I visited them and met all the executives and learned the technical details of how the gel was invented. There was a corporate incentives company. I met with them to see if any of their clients could become my clients.

At HBO, I learned how Michael Fuchs (the head of HBO Sports at the time; later CEO of HBO) in 1975 aired the first boxing match that went out on satellite. And how Jerry Levin (the CEO of HBO, later CEO of Time Warner) used satellites to send the signal out to the cable providers. It was the first time that had ever happened. Ted Turner was so inspired that he turned his local TV affiliate, TBS, into a national TV station, and the rest became history.

Rule No. 3: Know the history of the executives. At HBO, I studied the org chart religiously. My title was “programmer analyst, IT department” and yet I was always asking around: how did John Billock become head of marketing (he trudged around house to house selling HBO subscriptions in Louisiana when Showtime started up, for instance, decades earlier). Where did my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss work before arriving at HBO (Pepsi). Where did the head of Original Programming get his start? (He was a standup comedian, later CEO of HBO, before being forced to quit after choking his girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot.) It was like reading about the origins of all the superheroes. I was a fanboy and my heroes were the other executives. I wanted to be one of them. Or better.

Same thing: know all of your colleagues and what their dreams and ambitions are. Get to work two hours before they get to work. If they need favors, do them. You have a whole two hours extra a day. You can do anything.

Rule No. 4: Make your boss look good. Your entire job in life is to make your boss look good. You don’t care about yourself. You only want your boss to get promotions, raises, etc. Remember, you can never make more than your boss. So the more he makes, the better he does, the better you will do. It’s the only way to rise up. Work hard, give him full credit for everything you do. Don’t take an ounce of credit. At the end of the day, everyone knows where credit belongs. But even then, thank him for everything and direct all credit back to him (or her). Here’s how you make your boss look good:

  • Get to work two hours before him. If that means you have to wake up and go in at 5am, then do it. Two extra hours of work a day is an extra 500 hours of work a year. None of your co-workers can compete with that.
  • Walk with him to his car, train, etc when he leaves work. You need to know his goals, his initiatives, his plans, his family troubles, etc.
  • And, again, give him full credit for everything. And thank him regularly for the opportunity to do the work you are doing.

Rule No. 5: Know all the secretaries. It’s a cliché but the secretaries run the company. They control all of the schedules. They dish out all of the favors. Take as many secretaries out to lunch as possible. Not just in your department but in every department. Particularly HR. HR knows all of the gossip. Knows everything that is happening. It’s not so hard to do this. First off, HR gives you all of your intro material when you join the company. Ask those people out to lunch after you’ve settled in for a few weeks. If someone writes an internal company newsletter, ask that person to lunch. Ask your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s secretary out to lunch. Nobody will think you are going over their head. You’re asking to lunch “just” a secretary. This was invaluable to me at every company I’ve ever worked at.

Rule No. 6: Constantly test your value on the market. The job market is like any other market. There’s supply and demand. And you’re just an item for sale at the great bazaar. Every year you need to find out what your value is on the market. For one thing, the best way to get an increase in salary and status is to move horizontally, not vertically. Second, you don’t want to get inbred. A good friend of mine was in HBO’s marketing department for 17 years. I set up a dinner between her, me, and the CEO of an advertising agency that was hiring. The CEO was one of my closest friends. Still, she couldn’t hire my HBO friend. “She’s too inbred,” she said. “She will never be able to get the HBO way of doing things out of her head.”

When I was at HBO, I was constantly talking to people at other companies. I had lunch with the top people at Showtime. I knew people from all the other divisions of Time Warner. I was always asking people to lunch or breakfast. I would get offers from the banking industry. I would try to work within different divisions of HBO. Every time I got another offer, I got another raise and promotion at HBO. Sometimes substantial (up to 35 percent increases). My bosses would resent me for it, but then go back to “Rule #4,” and often they would get raises also.

Rule No. 7: Study all the marketing campaigns. In 1996, they switched their slogan to “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” That slogan lasted for 13 years. Before that it was “Simply the Best,” then “Something Special’s On.” When they switched to “It’s not TV,” Eric Kessler, the head of marketing, gave a talk on how they came up with the slogan. All his employees were in the auditorium. And me from the IT department. Nobody else would go with me. I knew every slogan HBO ever had.

Rule No. 8: Study the industry. What made HBO different from Showtime? From Cinemax? From non-pay cable? From broadcasting? I read every book about the history of TV I could find. I would go to lectures at the Museum of Radio and Television on 52nd Street (the best was the day that members of the MTV show The Real World gave a panel. After the panel, I followed one group of other people in the audience for 30 blocks while they talked about the panel and the show. I wanted to break in so many times. They would be my new best friends. We would have parties around showings of The Real World. But I was too shy, and eventually they all split off in different directions, leaving me alone). Jessica Reif Cohen was the Merrill analyst covering media. I knew nothing about stocks. But I read everything she wrote and would scan the Wall Street Journal for mentions of her name.

When I was trying to sell my first company, Reset, I called every company in the industry. Omnicom, Razorfish, Agency.com, etc. etc. I read every SEC filing so I would know the nuances of all their deals and financings.  When I was building Stockpickr, I became obsessed with the mechanics of how Yahoo Finance worked and the ways in which she (Yahoo Finance is a “she,” and I love her) delivered traffic to all of her media sources. With HBO it was fascinating to me because at one point the CEOs of Showtime, Time Warner, Universal, Viacom, Fox Sports, etc. were all former executives at HBO.

Rule No. 9: Become the company. I was a lowly programmer in the IT department. We were so far from the normal business operations of the company that they even put us in a different building. But that didn’t matter to me. I WAS HBO. That was my mantra. I became so absorbed in every aspect of the company that I knew that any idea I had would be a good idea for the company. At least I felt this (not sure if anyone else did). I never said, “I think this,” I said, “We should do this.” HBO and I were a “We.” Inseparable. Until you have that feeling of unity with the company you work for, you can’t rise up. Key, though: when you have an idea, make sure you know how to execute the idea also. In detail. Ideas are a dime a dozen. And execution is worth a million dollars. And I mean that specifically, if you execute on a good idea, you’ll make a million dollars or more from it.

Rule No. 10: Leave. All good things must come to an end. From the day you start, you need to plan your exit. Not like in rule #6, “Know Your Value” where you are trying to figure out your corporate salary value. “Leave” means something different. It means you’re going to say goodbye forever. If you master Rules #1-9 at a company, then you’ll know enough about the company and industry to start your own company. To either become a competitor or a service provider. And you will have built-in customers because your rolodex will be filled with people from the industry. If you constantly think like an entrepreneur from the instant you walk into your cubicle on day one of your job, then you will be constantly looking for those missing gaps you can fill. This is how you jump into the abyss. You make sure the abyss has a customer waiting for you.

I did everything wrong my first few months at HBO. I didn’t know New York City. I didn’t know corporate culture at all. I wore the same suit five days in a row until I realized nobody else was wearing a suit, and I never wore one again. I didn’t have the requisite skill set to survive at my job (they had to send me to a remedial programming school despite the fact that I had majored in programming AND went to graduate school for computer science).

I was obsessed with the Internet, and HBO didn’t even own HBO.com at the time. My boss’s boss’s boss would say to my boss, “get him away from that Internet stuff and onto some real work.” One time my boss came into my cubicle and, with everyone listening from every other cubicle, said to me, “We want you to succeed here but you need to know more or else it’s not going to work out.” It was very embarrassing, and nobody around me would meet my eyes for the next week or so. I was the walking dead. I was sure I was going to get fired every day.

But I survived then. And every day since.

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  1. Rodrigo says:

    Actually there is a mistake when you say we must love our work as much as Andre Agassi loves playing tennis. In his autobiography, he reveals he hated Tennis!

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    • DF says:

      Right–and this makes the whole point of the blog suspect. Agassi’s deeply ambivalent attitude toward tennis proves that you can succeed at a spectacular level without loving your work. He may be an outlier, but the story of success is clearly more complicated than the advice makes it seem.

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    • Danaan says:

      I’m glad someone else caught that! If the author of this post was going for sarcasm, he nailed it. Andre Agassi despised the sport of tennis, and his father for making him play it!

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  2. Stacy L. says:

    #11 – Quit using the word “secretary”. Even back in 1994 when I was one, we’d transitioned to the word “admin” or “admin assistant”.

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    • Tanner says:

      He doesn’t use the word to be politically correct, he uses it to be general and to let the readers know easily exactly what he is saying.

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  3. Dragline says:

    As usual, Altucher’s advice is only really good if you are just like Altucher and do not see any job as a long-term career.

    For the rest of you, I would never hire an employee that I thought was going to leave just when they began to have some value, except for those who are easily replaced anyway. Rest of this is just common sense, but most of it is more applicable to bosses who are now over 50. Follow a Gen-X boss around like a puppy dog and you are likely to get swatted with a rolled up newspaper and accused of being inefficient.

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  4. Kitkat says:

    sounds like this guy is very bright and very successful. I sincerely hope that he isn’t married and has no children, since he’s clearly too busy to have actual relationships.

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  5. NotACorporateFlunky says:

    Rule #0 (which MUST take precedence over Rules 1-10): Remember that you have a life, and are entitled to a life. If you choose to follow rules 1-10, do so because YOU choose to follow rules 1-10, not because your boss or his boss requires it of you to become a cog in their machine. Sure, working those extra 500 hours per year may help you advance, but you have to balance that against the loss in value of your non-work life.

    Rule 6a – understand your value to the company. Are you a cog in the machine, replaceable by the cog in the next cubicle, or are the people around you (specifically your boss and their bosses) real human beings and understand that you are a human being and not a cog. Being a cog is not necessarily a horrible thing, unless the demands on your are that you love your job like Derek Jeter loves baseball, yet your existence and contributions are not appreciated.

    For years I followed most of those rules working for a Giant Entity. When I discovered that, no matter what my contributions or level of caring about what was happening around me, my bosses viewed me a “that cog in the other cubicle”, I gave up on them and planned that exit strategy. It took a year, and I never stopped caring about the quality of my work or helping those around me. However, I realized that my time there was limited, and my life was not worth wasting away there.

    I confess that when I read these rules I felt they could have been written by Jack Welch. He was a genius at encouraging his employees to give more to his company. But he was also a genius at manipulating the work environment such that any gains would be absorbed by the company, not by the employee.

    My favorite example comes from a book on JW. At a meeting with GE employees, one employee comes up to JW and declares with pride “I give 60-70 hours per week for your company!” JW tells the employee he is being foolish – he should be working on making sure the job can be made more efficient so he only has to work 40 hours/week. That is an absolutely wonderful attitude and theory – but the reality was that if you worked 50-60 hours/week and managed to build in efficiencies to take your work week down to 40-45 hours, your boss would simply give you more work to do (“you want to be a team player, don’t you?”). And there you are – right back to 50-60 hours/week.

    Become a corporate flunky if you choose – but only if you choose. Remember, though, that you are also a human being.

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  6. Kat says:

    If I got a job at HBO I’d do exactly the same. In the real world most of us dont work for such a company – we often have to take jobs with companies we don’t admire or even use. Is this the real challenge to todays worker – how to to succeed in a company you dont really admire?

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  7. Greg says:

    This is one of the saddest things I’ve read in a long time.

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  8. Allen says:

    “I didn’t have the requisite skill set to survive at my job (they had to send me to a remedial programming school despite the fact that I had majored in programming AND went to graduate school for computer science).”

    Just a thought, but maybe instead of memorizing company history and org charts, the writer could have, I don’t know, maybe worked on programming? As a boss of programmers, I can tell you nothing is more irritating that suck-ups that can’t cut it technically.

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