October 13, 2015

From the Mailroom to the Boardroom: Can It Still Be Done?

MountainWith university costs soaring, many people are looking at alternative routes into the corporate world. Of course, getting a job in the mailroom or as a temp has the potential to be a good start, but it’s also possible to end up entombed there, constantly overtaken by high-fliers with flashy college degrees.

Will you — could you — be able to start from the very bottom and make it to the top? In an era of credentials, is it even possible to go from the mailroom to the boardroom?

Recent evidence suggests a great deal of upward mobility in the corporate sphere, as shown by this CNBC piece, which profiles 10 top executives who started in the mailroom. So, it seems that the corporate ladder does indeed extend down into the mailroom.

The Inside Man

And yet, as a mailroom resident and boardroom aspirant, you are not ideally positioned for success. You are well off leadership’s radar when it comes to succession planning. You do have one advantage, though: you’ll hear about jobs before they are advertised. Research from CareerBuild found that 72 percent of employers look at internal resources before publicly posting a job opening. This means that, even if you’re in the mailroom, you’ll likely have a crack to open positions in the company before other, similarly qualified external applicants would.

If you can get a foot in the door at a business you want to work for, be that in the mailroom or as some kind of contingent worker, you will be able to more quickly access internal job opportunities that may never be advertised to the public. Your application will be looked on a little more favorably simply because you already understand the business culture, are a known candidate, and can start almost immediately.

Put in That Legwork

But this is just the beginning. The world doesn’t owe you anything. You may have a shot at promotion opportunities as a mailroom clerk, but you need to make it happen. You’ll need to be committed to your job; you need to position yourself as a great servant to the business, always looking for ways to improve things, create efficiencies, show initiative, demonstrate leadership skills, solve problems, be positive, and go the extra mile.

LadderAlso, you’ll want to prepare an elevator pitch that outlines your skills and ambitions — and you should be ready to deliver your succinct spiel to anyone who wants to hear it at any time.

You should always have on hand two or three great ideas for how the business can be improved. Save those for rare opportunities when you get to meet with senior leaders.

Network as much as you can. Attend a lot of company-oriented social events, especially ones at which high-level executives will be in attendance. (Provided you’re invited, of course.)

Is there a club or something similar that you can join to rub shoulders with managers on a regular basis? Use that group to hear about new opportunities through the grapevine and snag some great referrals.

The goal of all these steps is to get yourself noticed. You need management to see you as promotion material. Once they do, you’ll be able to apply for internal opportunities at the company, increasing your chances of taking a step up the corporate ladder.

From here, the sky is the limit. Of course, you’ll need to focus constantly on developing yourself as you climb the ladder. Don’t get complacent. Most great leaders believe in continual professional development.

One of the best things you can do is find yourself an internal mentor. Studies show that workers with mentors are promoted faster and earn more than those without. Remember, mentors can also act as references, and having a powerful reference will also increase your chances of being selected for a higher-level role. An MBA might help you break into the boardroom, but so will networking and a strong performance.

While the Ivy League route to the top is a proven and well-trodden path, you can still make your way up from the mailroom to the boardroom, even in today’s world. All you need is a healthy dose of determination and entrepreneurship.

Read more in Career Goals

Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.