It’s commonly said that you can’t get rich working for someone else. That the only way to achieve financial independence is to own your own business.
This idea feels true when you are stuck in a thankless job, working long hours for mediocre pay. But it’s nonsense.
It’s perfectly possible to become wealthy as an employee. You’ve just got to (a) be working for the right kind of company, (b) chart a course for yourself that takes you from ordinary to valuable and from valuable to invaluable, and (c) make sure you get the compensation you deserve.
I know this to be true for three reasons: I did it myself. I mentored at least a dozen employees that did the same thing. And I looked at a foot-high stack of research on highly paid employees that confirmed my experience.
(In this essay, I’ll outline the principal ideas I’ve developed on this subject. I’ll present them just as I presented them to those I’ve mentored: as observations and advice. Sometime later this year, if I can get someone to help me, I’ll expand this essay into a book. But what you are about to read should get you going and keep you moving in the right direction, if you are interested.)
Nothing I’m about to suggest will be especially difficult.
It will take time. And commitment. And the willingness to do some things that you are not doing now. But there will be no big scary leaps required of you. Begin where you are now, with the skills and knowledge you currently have.
Then move forward, taking small, sensible steps, acquiring the skills and knowledge you currently lack.
Here’s how you do it.
1. Work for a Business That’s Right for You
There are basically three kinds of businesses that can provide the environment you are looking for, where you can become rich.
Big corporations will pay you serious money if you are at the top of their food chain. A senior vice president of a billion-dollar business can easily make $350,000-$750,000.
It’s not difficult to accumulate an eight-figure net worth if you get yourself promoted into one of those highly paid jobs quickly. But the competition will be strong.
You will be competing with dozens (if not hundreds) of very smart, very hardworking, very ambitious young people. You will have to be not only outstanding at your job and then move yourself strategically towards the money side of the business, you will also have to be politically shrewd.
Because all big companies suffer from some amount of corporate politics. And even if you have what it takes to rise to the top, it will likely take 10-20 years.
Financial service businesses
Brokerages, banks, and insurance companies are particularly good places for ambitious people that want to get rich as employees because they are designed to motivate and reward their employees with commissions and bonuses. And if you are with the right company, those commissions and bonuses can be huge.
There are probably a thousand such businesses in the USA that are happy to pay their best people $250,000 to $1 million or more – if they can perform. Career paths at this level include portfolio managers, marketers, and salespeople.
Becoming a high-earning portfolio manager is a matter of knowledge, skill, and luck. If you are highly intelligent, mathematically oriented, and mentally disciplined, this could be an exciting and rewarding path for you. But be prepared for the emotional challenges. It is difficult to keep an investment portfolio’s performance above the pack. When the performance is up there, you are a superstar. When it drops below – and eventually it will – you will be a pariah.
A less demanding (in my view) career path is to become a broker – starting out working under another broker, developing leads and then signing up your own accounts, and then eventually having a team of junior marketers and junior salespeople working for you. Brokering is 80% salesmanship, 10% customer management, and 10% knowing what you are doing. To succeed as a broker, you need to be very good at all three.
Small companies with big potential
The third type of business that offers employees the potential to become rich is the small, entrepreneurial company with big growth potential.
This was my choice as a young man, and I don’t regret it. Starting out with a small company, especially if you are young, gives you a fast track to making big money that you won’t get in a big corporate environment.
You are not competing against dozens of hyper-smart and uber-ambitious colleagues. And there is no formal corporate ladder to climb.
With small businesses, it’s generally easier to take on more responsibility. It’s also much more likely that you will be working directly with the founder, who will be very conscious of everything you are doing to make him or her rich.
Plus, working for a small business gives you a much greater ability to shape the corporate culture so that you can become not just wealthy but also proud of what you do.
2. Becoming a Valuable Employee
Whatever type of company you choose, your journey to wealth begins by establishing yourself as a valuable employee.
Most employees go through their lives working for businesses they care nothing much about, dealing with problems they’d rather not face and getting paid very ordinary wages.
They would like to earn more. They may even be willing to do more. But their ambitions are sporadic and fleeting. Most of the time, they are simply showing up.
Such employees are never going to get substantial raises. They can expect their salary to rise very slowly and very gradually. From 1984-2017, for example, the average salary rose by around 3.5%, according to the Average Wage Index.
As an ordinary employee, that’s what you should expect. But getting a 3.5% increase every year will never get you rich. It’s barely enough to keep up with inflation.
Becoming a valuable employee, however, puts you on a different trajectory. Extraordinary employees can – and often do – get raises that begin at twice the 3.5% average and often jump by 10% yearly with periodic leaps of 25% or more.
That sort of arithmetic is why most college-educated employees starting out today can expect to quadruple or quintuple their salaries over a career span of about 20 years, whereas top-performing employees can easily double or triple that.
A valuable employee, earning only a minimum increase of 7% a year, will see his compensation grow from $50,000 to $193,000 in 20 years. At 10%, he will see his compensation break into the quarter-million-dollar range.
There are basically four ways to distinguish yourself as a valuable employee and see your compensation accelerate at a faster pace:
1. Work longer hours.
Don’t fall for that goofy idea that “good employees get their work done between nine and five.” If you want your bosses to notice you as someone who is willing to do more, begin by working longer hours.
How many extra hours?
An hour per day is good. Two hours is better. If you can do a little work at home on weekends, that’s not bad either.
If at all possible, put in your extra hours at the beginning of the day.
Getting to work early is a common virtue of almost all successful people. There is something about getting in earlier than everyone else that seems nobler, smarter, or just plain more industrious than working late.
In How to Become CEO, Jeffrey J. Fox puts it this way: “Arriving to work late signals you don’t like your job very much. Even if you prefer to come in late and stay late, staying late sends the signal that you can’t keep up or your personal life is poor.”
You are working more hours for three reasons. You want to do more than your peers.
You want to learn more than your peers. And you want to be sure that your bosses – the people who will eventually promote you – know how extraordinary you are.
2. Develop a distinctly positive and infectiously enthusiastic attitude.
Nobody likes a sourpuss – even if the sourpuss is a genius. Become the person who arrives at work with energy, greets his coworkers warmly, volunteers for assignments enthusiastically, and seems very happy with his career.
3. Say “Yes!
Much has been written about the virtues of saying no. But if you want your boss to support your efforts to move up in the company, you have to support him by making his job easier.
You do this by saying yes. By saying yes if he asks you for a favor… by saying yes to taking on that extra job… and even by saying yes when you mean no. (There is a certain skill in saying yes when you mean no, but that’s a topic for another essay.)
4. Advertise your accomplishments.
It’s not enough to be positive, to say yes, and to work more hours. In order to make sure the extra efforts you’re making are noticed, you have to advertise them.
Doing a good job of self-promotion (without coming off as a braggart) means that you always give others some of the credit for your accomplishments.
3. Becoming an Invaluable Employee
Valuable employees earn good salaries and get good raises. But invaluable employees do better – often much better.
What does it mean to be an invaluable employee?
It means being someone that the business doesn’t want to lose.
How can you become an invaluable employee?
You begin by embracing a simple truth about business: The lifeblood of every business is profit. The employee that helps produce profits is invaluable. Everyone else is just valuable at best.
In other words, if you can find a way to help increase your company’s profits, you will be in a very strong position when it comes time to discussing your compensation.
The more strongly you can help lift profits, the more leverage you have in demanding wealth-producing compensation for yourself.
So how can you make your business more profitable?
There are a limited number of ways. You can help create or improve your company’s products. You can help market those products to new and existing customers. You can help manage profits by decreasing costs and raising margins.
How do you get yourself into sales, marketing, product creation, or profit management?
Identify the people in your company who are already doing those jobs. (They are almost certainly the ones who make the most money.) Tell them you’re interested in learning more about their end of the business, and offer to help them out in your free time.
As you learn more, you will be able to do more. And your contributions to the business can gradually shift in the direction of creating profits.
4. What You Can Do, Starting Today, to Make It Happen
Being an ordinary employee will give you an ordinary life. But becoming an extraordinary employee will give you an entirely richer future.
If you are interested in this idea of becoming rich as an employee, I’ll be providing more specific advice in future essays. Meanwhile, here are eight super-powerful things you can do right now.
* Come in to work earlier – earlier than everyone you are competing with, and definitely earlier than your boss.
* Set aside the first hour of the day to doing something that will advance your ultimate goal of becoming an invaluable employee. This is not the time for answering emails or tending to current problems. This is the time you are plotting your own path to becoming CEO.
* Organize your work, giving top priority to what is good for your boss, second priority to what is good for your boss’s boss, and third priority to what is good for you. (You aren’t going to get on the fast track by taking care of your own goals. Those you attend to in that first hour. The rest of the day is devoted to the goals of the company and the people you work for.)
* Learn. And keep learning. Become the most knowledgeable person in your company about the job you are doing, and then learn everything you can about the job you want to move into. Learn everything you can about your company and your industry – especially how it works financially. Study marketing. Study sales. Study product development.
* Recognize every business interaction – whether it is a presentation you will be making at a meeting or a small conversation at the coffee machine – as an opportunity to advance or damage your career. Choose to advance it.
* When it comes to your boss and your company, be a yes person. When it comes to everything else, be careful of commitments that will interfere with your wealth-building goals.
* Go into the day with enthusiasm and maintain that enthusiasm throughout the day.
* Meet your deadlines. Deliver more than you promise. Smile like you love your job.
And do it all with the goal of becoming thought of – by those who count – as invaluable. This is not about faking it. It’s about representing yourself authentically. If you tend to be a modest person, documenting and gently advertising your accomplishments might feel a bit artificial at first. Don’t be stopped by that. Getting noticed matters.
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