Sharing Lessons He Learned by Working for Free

Posted September 19, 2008 at 2:35pm

Back in 1996, when I graduated from college with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, I came back to Washington, D.C., thinking I would take the town by storm. After all, hadn’t I just earned a degree from one of the most prestigious institutions in the country? There was no way a hometown kid with those kinds of credentials could lose, I remember thinking. Boy, did I turn out to be dead wrong.

Not only had I arrived in Washington with no firm job offers, but after months of nosing around, applying for jobs at law firms and consulting firms, political action committees, nonprofits and the like, I still had neither a job nor any immediate prospects. I was considering joining the military in a last-ditch effort to make myself useful, when a call came out of the blue.

It turns out that my younger brother, who was to begin college at Morehouse College that fall, had resigned from his internship at a local public relations firm a bit early, leaving the office short-handed. The political season in Washington had just shifted into full swing. A close race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole provided fertile ground for those in the public affairs business; a host of interests clamored to get their voices heard.

My brother’s boss had called to find out whether my brother had left for college yet, and, if not, wanted to know whether he could come in and work that weekend. Just that morning, I explained, my brother had packed his old Volkswagen and headed down to Atlanta. His boss, somewhat crestfallen at receiving the news, nonetheless perked up considerably when I told him I was home from college and having a hard time finding a job.

Little did I know at the time, but my desperation brought joy to his ears. “Well, you know absolutely nothing about our business, but I always like to help young people out, so if you’re interested, come by my office tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. and we’ll see what we can work out.” I was ecstatic at such a fortuitous occurrence and made it my business to be waiting in the lobby wearing my most recently pressed suit by 8:30 the next morning.

As I walked into the Dupont Circle office, filled with overstuffed leather furniture and photos of my soon-to-be boss slapping backs with the who’s who of Washington political royalty, I began to feel a bit out of place. Would I survive at such a place, I wondered? The question, as if communicated by extra-sensory means, was promptly answered by a man, who, back turned to me and on the phone, stated, without introduction or welcome, “You’ll be working with me this morning. Your desk will be out front and when we’re not working on anything, you’ll answer the phones.” I almost couldn’t believe it, accustomed as I was to being feted as a young genius, and was about to storm out, when he turned around with a grin and said, “Your younger brother did such a great job here; he’ll be greatly missed.”

I decided to stay. I even ignored the fact that I wouldn’t be paid a salary; I was told that a small stipend might come in sometime around the third month of my employment. As it turned out, I ended up working very closely with the chief executive officer of a major Washington public relations firm. We ghost-wrote opinion pieces and press releases for clients in politics and business. We traveled the United States on behalf of clients, arranging meetings with state and local elected officials.

Although I considered myself a pretty good writer, it was there that I really learned how to write on deadline, with none of the endless research and sophistic pondering we were taught in college. We had to quickly grasp the gist of a topic and our client’s position, and execute immediately; after all, news does not stay news for long, especially during election season in Washington. Clients were paying good money to get their voices heard in the media.

There was very little equanimity in the stuff we produced. Our clients took a position, and we were hired to put it in the best light possible. There was never even any question of being fair and balanced. There were some positions I agreed with, and others I found somewhat objectionable, but that didn’t matter. I had to learn how to write any side of an argument clearly and convincingly. This type of writing was to be of a great help to me when I got to law school the next year and had to write legal arguments for and against controversial topics on command.

But the experience in learning how to write opinion pieces pales in comparison to the other skill I gained. I gained the skill of leadership. My boss said he did his best thinking early in the morning and decided that in order to make best use of the day; he would have to pick me up from home at 4:30 a.m. on his way to the gym (he would have insisted that I pick him up if I had a car).

It was at these times, as I churned out miles on the treadmill or the exercise bike, that he began to transmit to me valuable secrets of leadership. He explained, for example, why the CEO had to always be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave in the evening. He stressed over and over again the importance of building and developing key relationships. Most important of all, he said that if I ever intended on being anyone of repute, I’d have to fake it until I made it. He placed emphasis on the fact that in order to become successful, one has to act as if one has already succeeded.

These and other invaluable lessons over the years helped me to develop into the leader I have become today. I am firmly sold on the value of internships; I know from experience that the lowest-paying job in the shop can often prove to be the most rewarding. During and after law school, I continued to work at internships, eschewing some of the more prestigious and higher-paying jobs for those that offered the most substantive and relevant experience. I worked at institutions both in the U.S. and abroad in Africa, where I honed my skills and gained unique experiences that have opened the door to very lucrative professional opportunities. As I transition into a new role as CEO of a small and growing consulting practice that helps American companies capitalize on business opportunities in Africa, I continue to reap great dividends from the lessons I earned by working for free.

Omari A. West is CEO of the Horus Group, an international development consulting company.