Getting Ahead; Contributors Versus Participants

At some point in every young man’s life, a wise but aging adult pulls him aside to teach him the proper way to shake hands with a superior. This also happens with young ladies as well lately. The wise soul weathered in business, impresses upon the youngster how a firm handshake lets them know you mean business.



Then that upstart long adult walks into an interview with me and breaks my hand. Interview over.

Not all advice is good advice.

Sure you should have a good handshake, but you don’t need to hurt someone. What is behind this advice, behind all advice, that most fail to understand, are the intentions.

It’s good advice to be to work on time. You don’t need to arrive before your boss and stay after her. You don’t need to crush her hand in the interview.

Every piece of advice they’ve given you about getting ahead comes down to this one basic concept. You are either participating in your job or you are contributing.

Both are fine, better than not showing up, but one approach will get you ahead. One will stagnate your opportunities. If you want to get ahead, if you can apply the rules of contribution, then do it.




Before I get accused of bad-mouthing participants, let’s get this clear; the world needs them. People who show up to work have been some of my best hires.

If the entire workforce of any business I’ve run was only participants, I would have back so many hours of sleep.

Participants not only show up, they ask what can I do? Then they go do what you’ve asked of them. For better or worse, that is where the story ends.

On the other hand, participants don’t consider better ways to do things. They don’t question things or ever push back. In many ways, they are very easy team members to have.

They paint by numbers, which is better than coloring outside the lines. If you’ve ever worked on a team of participants, you know that everything works.

That said, these are not the most engaging teams.




In many ways contributors are malcontents. It’s not enough for these individuals to show up to do their jobs.

They want to make things better. They always see new ways to do things. They don’t just want to paint by numbers, but to know every logic behind why those were the colors you’ve selected.

They want to know if they can choose new colors if they promise to color inside the lines. They want to know every detail of operations, relevant to their job or not.

The minds of contributors are constantly going; you have no choice but to be aware of this fact. Sadly, not everyone with a motor in their head is a contributor.

Plenty of today’s participants are would-be-contributors, but for other factors in their life, they are not. Maybe they’re not ready to get ahead or their interest in the work is superficial. Maybe they lack the confidence to let some of those creative thoughts and questions escape.

Breaking Away



If what you’ve read makes you think, I’m a participant, but I could be a contributor, then this is your chance.

Again, if all you ever do is participate, that beats non-participants all day long. You’re fine where you are.

That said, you’re gonna have to get a little uncomfortable if you want to break that pattern. You’re gonna have to get used to hearing “no.”

My math is not water tight, but the best contributors come with something like 500 ideas a month. One of them is worth considering.

Contributors never stop trying to get make things better. They are the first to raise their hand in a meeting. They are early to work, not because of some tactic they learned from Dad, but because they’re excited to be there, to try new things.

They give a good firm handshake because they know what they want.



As a leader, contributors push us to get better. There’s no because I told you with contributors. They make us better leaders because we have to be on our game.

Weak or new leaders see contributors as a threat, so don’t let it surprise you if your contributions are universally appreciated.

Also, understand the value of time and place. It’s great that you’ve found motivation. It’s even better if you recognize that right this moment is not always the best time. Usually, it’s the worst.

Find private and quiet moments to dig in, and always with respect.

Operate with this mentality: I don’t know everything, but I want to understand more.

Stay that way your whole career, even when they make you the CEO.