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How to spectacularly fail in your career (and life) …

By Jacqueline Mahugu | February 24th 2020

Edelman is one of the largest communications company in the world and over the years, Jordan Rittenberry, the CEO of Edelman Africa has seen many employees come and go. And if he would pass on any wisdom to young job seekers and professionals, these are the 10 he would share.   By JACQUELINE MAHUGU.

1.      Have a crappy work-life balance

Eat, breath and sleep your work. But unfortunately, maybe too late, you will learn that balance in your life is really important. If you want to work hard, you absolutely should, but you also have to remember that the person inside needs some attention too. It can’t be all about work. I find my balance outdoors.  I work hard and play hard too. I enjoy running, so I run lots of ultra-marathons, which are 162 km races. I find that work can be very stressful with a lot going on in the office, but when I go out for a very long run on the weekend is when I can really unwind, relax and escape. It is physically tiring, but mentally, it feels good. Find that one thing you truly enjoy doing outside work and do it.

2.    Don't take any risks

Why try something new when what you have is working just fine? Why take up that challenge?

When I moved to South Africa from the US, I learned more about people in the first year than I did in the previous five years. When you make yourself uncomfortable and put yourself in different situations, that is where a lot of personal growth comes from. That is when you find out who you really are. It almost forces you to continue learning rather than becoming complacent and too comfortable. Being an expat isn’t very easy. Being far away from home, away from all of your friends and family, you miss a lot of things. But it is a sacrifice I have made. And I have had lots of personal growth for it. Do not be afraid of challenges. Go out there and you never really know how good you are until you dare.

3. Believe that you know everything

While it is good to believe in yourself and your abilities,  you will in time learn that you need others. Other people are very important to one’s success, particularly a business. Building a network is really important, as is having mentors and people that can guide you in your career, give you some advice and help you see things from a different perspective. I have been lucky enough to work with many smart individuals at Edelman and people who have mentored me and sponsored me perhaps because they have seen the potential. At the same time, people can only get you so far. You have to carry it the rest of the way. There is no substitute for hard work. You cannot just rely on a network. You have to put in the time and you have to be the one to do the hard work.

 4. Know that passion is everything

Passion is great, it fuels you. But sadly, it isn't everything. You can have a passion for what you do but not really work hard at it, so you fail. You can work really hard at something you hate and fail. Doing what you love will bring you true joy, but just doing in and not pushing yourself will not lead to any success. Also, do it for yourself. You can’t do it for other people. You have to do it because it is something you genuinely want to do. To rise through the ranks wherever you are, there is no substitute for hard work. That is somehow cliché but you have to show up and be consistent. Also be smart about it. There are no shortcuts. Some people might jump around companies to try and get ahead, but at the end of the day it doesn’t work.  If you enjoy what you do, you have to put in the work and the time. Be the same person every day.

 5. Be reactive, never reflective

When I first got to South Africa we would go out and try and get new business. But for nine months we would do big pitches and lose. It became very frustrating as the business was not growing but each time we lost, we learned something. Based on our observations on how it all went down, we would tweak the approach and do something differently the next time. We did this until we started winning, and the office grew from having 15 to 85 employees.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that you need to listen. There are times when you think you know what is best and feel like you have all the answers and you are used to doing things a certain way. “This worked where I came from, therefore it will work here, right?” Wrong.  Whether it is pursuing new business or developing a strategy or working with clients or a team, just because you did it a certain way somewhere else doesn’t mean the same will work where you are now. So I spend a lot more time listening than I do talking. And I have learnt loads.

6. Have an iron clad plan for your life

There is a line in a song that says; If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plan. It is very difficult to have a plan for your life and create a timeline for where you want to be in three, five or 10 years. I find that in many ways, it is a fool’s errand because life happens. You do not know where life will take you. And you have to be okay with that. Being rigid will cost you.   I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams think I would move to Africa and build a business here. It had never crossed my mind but now I will most likely look back and say that this was the best job I ever had. Nothing can top this. I have never worked so hard in my life but I have never had so much fun either.

7.   Be a control freak...

...But it will make you a very unhappy person. You have to know what you can have an impact on and you have to learn to accept the things you cannot change. There is no sense in getting mad at a situation, whether the lift is not working or you didn’t win this piece of business. It has happened, it is done, you can’t fix it. So the way I approach it is to just move on. Have a very short term memory on the negative and forget it. Because you can spend a lot of time being frustrated about traffic or the way in which other people are acting. You are only going to work yourself up and that is not helpful for anyone.

8.  Never pick up a book

I have found that the best way to learn about a culture or anything really, other than spending time in it is to read about it.  You can learn so much; from the history of people, how the countries came to be and what has taken place over a long period of time. The past is important for interpreting the future. I have bought many books on Africa to try and understand the continent and how it came to be. I also study about people. Right now I am reading a book called ‘Talking to Strangers’ by Malcom Gladwell. I recommend that. I also recommend Start with Why by Simon Sinek.

9.   Be comfortable

Everyone hires differently but I don’t hire based on education; I hire based on ambition. Are you eager, ambitious, hungry? Do you want something more and will you be aggressive pursuing goals? Are you going to push until you get something? When we hire people we hire based first on our culture – are you going to fit in? And then your level of ambition. At Edelman we call it entrepreneurial spirit. I can teach you PR and I can teach you how to write. Because at the end of the day what we do is not brain surgery or rocket science. It’s not that hard. But do you have a drive? If you do, I can give you all the tools you need to feed it so that you can go far.

10.Get a job. Any job

The biggest mistake people make is making short term decisions that have long term effects. There is no such thing as a short cut. You see people hopping to other jobs because they see a better title or a few more shillings a month and they think they are getting ahead but in reality they are struggling to stay at the same level. If you are in a place that you love, invest in it and it will invest in you. Spend time and focus on being really good at that. I would not be here if I had not spent time in this company for 14 years.

 If you are just starting out, ask yourself: do you love what you do? If you do, that is where you should be focused on that. I quit midway my aeronautical engineering degree because I realised I would hate the job. It would have been the worst possible job for me. I then chose public relations. And I love it. I work hard for it and the passion is unrestrained.


Jordan Rittenberry is originally from Chicago, Illinois in the United States. He has been with Edelman for 14 years.

He has been in communications for his entire career, having previously worked at Raymond James Financial Services, Inc as a communications co-ordinator and at Ruder Finn, a PR firm as a senior account executive. In 2006, he joined Edelman’s Chicago office where he served leading the Technology and Business Marketing practice as executive vice president for nine years.

He then moved to Johannesburg in January 2016 as managing director, Edelman South Africa before becoming CEO of Edelman Africa in August 2018.

Edelman recently acquired Gina Din Corporate Communications and opened a new office based in Nairobi, where Rittenberry will now be based.

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