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The Path to the Top Starts at the Bottom

The objective is to start at the bottom, not to stay there.



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Regardless of whether you are a recent college graduate, just obtained a two-year associate degree from a vocational school, or did neither and are about to enter the workforce straight out of high school, if I could tell you one thing—aside from “be willing to work your ass off,” it would be this: All you need to know to be at the top is learned at the bottom.

READ THAT AGAIN. Take a moment and let it sink in. We all want to be at the top — to be the top dog, the head honcho, the one calling all the shots. But not everyone is suited to be there, oftentimes because they skipped the lessons they should have learned at the bottom. The value of those at the top is frequently a reflection of their willingness to start at the bottom.

Analyze Romantic Career Notions

Some careers lend itself to idealized notions more than others, but in reality, all demand hard work if you hope to succeed at whatever it is you choose to do. Every career starts somewhere, and more than likely, that’s an entry-level position. 

We start at the bottom and, through persistence and perseverance, make our way up the employment food chain.

Someone who knew a thing or two about food chains is Bobby Flay, successful restaurant owner in a business that is often overly romanticized by aspiring chefs. It should be noted, however, that Flay, who has appeared on numerous Food Network shows like Iron Chef America, Grillin’ & Chillin’, Beat Bobby Flay, Brunch @ Bobby’s, and Throwdown with Bobby Flay, was not always a household name. 

You’d be wrong if you thought he did not first pay his dues spending time at the bottom of an industry known for repetitive tasks like slicing, dicing, chopping, and mincing.

After he dropped out of high school at seventeen, Flay took a job at Joe Allen’s, a popular restaurant in New York’s Theater District, where he spent hours just making salads. While doing this, and “cranking out countless meals,” as he says in his cookbook, Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook, he dreamed of the restaurant concept for Mesa Grill.

“All you need to know to be at the top is learned at the bottom.”

Pay Your Dues to Keep Moving Ahead

Flay’s boss at Joe Allen’s noticed something special about Flay and paid for him to attend NYC’s French Culinary Institute, an investment of time to learn his trade. After this, he worked several jobs learning what it was really like working in the kitchen of a restaurant. 

During this time, he realized he was not quite ready to run his own kitchen. “It was all fine and good to dream big, but I needed the skills first. I had no culinary point of view of my own yet.” And so, he took a job as a chef—not executive chef—at another restaurant where he was introduced to his now trademark southwestern-style flavors.

Flay has since amassed a culinary empire that includes restaurants, TV shows, cookbooks, and food products. His example shows that it takes wisdom to hone your skills in order for your vision to manifest. 

Said another way: Working in another person’s kitchen can help you sharpen the knives that you will use in your own. If you bypass time at the bottom where you learn what is needed to live at the top, the spotlight that shines on you may show not only what you have, but also what you lack.

Cold Calls: A Dose of Reality

In the staffing industry (or any sales related job), the bottom rung is cold calling, what those in the biz call dialing for dollars. For me, that meant plowing through the business Yellow Pages, line by line, hoping someone would pick up the phone so I could discuss the services offered by the firm where I was employed.

I hated doing it, but it had to be done. I didn’t know it then, but making those calls laid the foundation for the numerous business relationships that would ultimately foster the establishment of my two firms, BF Consultants and Encore Professionals Group.

Cold calling—spending time on the bottom rung grinding and cranking away—helped me learn the business. 

When I first started, I knew nothing about the accounting and finance positions I would be filling. I knew nothing about professional services and asking customers about their hiring needs. I knew nothing about business development or being a valued resource for those seeking to identify talent for the companies they worked for. 

I learned about all of it through cold calling, by talking with customers about their challenges and by asking them how I could help. By starting at the bottom, I gained the foundational knowledge that I needed in order to be at the top and, one day, be my own boss.

Many of the deals I now work on come from people I have known for twenty-plus years. Any success I have had in business is in direct proportion to the relationships I cultivated years ago. And many of them started with that dreaded cold call. 

The Bottom: A Place to Visit Not to Live

The objective is to start at the bottom, not to stay there. Entry-level positions are opening points not endpoints. This is the time for your roots to go deep so you remain grounded, no matter how lofty the heights to which you ascend. 

It is the place that helps shape who you are and what type of employee (or employer, perhaps) you will eventually become. Experiencing the progression, and knowing what it feels like, flavors and seasons your character. Tasting what it is like at the bottom does not mean you have to cultivate an appetite for it. But it is essential you know how it tastes.

Chris Fontanella is the founder of Encore Professionals Group, a professional services firm specializing in the identification and placement of accounting and finance candidates in temporary and full-time positions. He previously served as Division Director for Robert Half International and Client Service Director for Resources Global Professionals. Prior to entering the staffing industry, Fontanella spent years studying theology and preparing for ministry, having received his bachelor of arts degree in New Testament Studies from Oral Roberts University, and his master of arts degree in Theological Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Jump-Start Your Career: Ten Tips to Get You Going, and Tune Up Your Career: Tips & Cautions for Peak Performance in the Workplace. Learn more at

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