Kevin Spacey has recently popularized this quote: “If you have done well in whatever business you are in, it is your duty to send the elevator back down and try to help bring up the next generation of undiscovered talent.”
I can’t argue with that, and if you’ve done as well as you hope to, that may be all there is to it. But if you’ve taken the elevator as high as it currently goes, and want to go higher, I think there’s another important job that Mr. Spacey overlooked: to build the elevator in the first place.
If “the elevator” is a system of support, a network of peers and champions, and a path to follow that is easier than taking each step on your own, then certainly not every city has elevators in every industry that go all the way to the top.
The height of your city’s elevators will vary by profession. Perhaps you can go pretty far as a surgeon, but developing your career as an engineer isn’t as easy. The elevator only goes so high, and then networking opportunities, job openings, mentors, and chances to learn disappear or become very difficult to find.
Just about every city, for example, has a few elevators for the early stages of general business development. They’re easy for any aspiring entrepreneur to find and easy to get onto, but they only go a few floors up.
Some cities have elevators for tech startups or social enterprise or some particular industry that reach much higher. Fewer cities have elevators for companies with over a million dollars in annual revenue, or hardware startups with high growth potential, or service companies with an international client base.
People in those situations will have trouble finding others who understand their needs, their difficulties, their frustrations, and their successes. They’re climbing a steep staircase of their own, often while constantly sending the elevator back down for people who are just starting out and trying to get where they are. That’s admirable, but their contributions to their professional networks are all downward looking. They aren’t building the elevator any higher.
As a result, in every city, for every industry, there is a floor where hoards of people who took the elevator up are milling about in a professional purgatory. Where the elevator stops, people have a few choices: stagnate, find a city where the elevator goes higher, or do the very hard work of climbing without a support network.
In rare instances, someone will do that work while also building the elevator as they go. To do this, they have to be upward looking — focused on where they want to be, not where they used to be. They need to create the networks and ask for the support that they need now, not the ones the next generation does.
Much of it will seem to be merely for their own benefit. But every step they take, they will demonstrate how to get there to a fleet of up-and-coming undiscovered talent. The elevator reaches higher.
How high does the elevator in your profession in your city go? If right now you’re standing at the top of the elevator, you can send one back down, but ask yourself this, too: who is doing the work of building it higher? Can you?