Four Career Lessons from Russell Simmons

Want to move up the corporate ladder or start a big business and become wealthy? You're in luck. The chief executive officer of hip-hop, Russell Simmons, can tell you how. Simmons is the mind behind many successful ventures, including Def Jam Recordings, which he sold to the Universal Music Group for $100 million in 1998. When I recently interviewed Simmons, who wrote the book Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All (Gotham, 2011), he outlined four steps to success.

1. Choose passion over money. When you go to work each day just for a paycheck or you start a company only because you see dollar signs, you are trapping yourself in misery. At the end of the day, if you aren't enthusiastic about your job, you won't produce. "I've poured my passion into ventures that made me happy before they ever made me a red cent," Simmons says. At the start of his career, working with business partner and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings Rick Rubin and running Def Jam out of his dorm room at New York University, Simmons was so desperate for funding that he had to beg the bank for a loan. He showed up for work each morning because he was motivated by the fun and happiness of sharing new hip-hop records with the world. Focus on activities and opportunities that excite you instead of thinking about the money. The revenue will come as a result of your hard work and enthusiasm.

2. Have a positive attitude. Especially in this economy, many professionals fail to summon the optimism required to venture up the organizational pyramid. "Whenever you can approach all of your work with a smile and make no distinction between success and failure, the world is going to open in front of you," says Simmons. In Super Rich, he points to Lyor Cohen, chairman of the Warner Music Group (WMG), as an example. Toward the beginning of his career, Cohen volunteered to fill in as Run DMC's Europe tour manager, which was viewed as a low level position in the music world. He built trust with the band, which eventually led to a full-time management position. Then he became a full partner at Rush Communications, and finally, head of Def Jam. He had never had "a formal position, a salary, or even a desk." Russell sums it up beautifully: "You have to appreciate every rung of the ladder if you want to be successful."

3. Think before you speak. In addition to having a positive attitude, you have to stay calm, cool, and collected, both online and offline. You may have noticed that many professionals use their social-network profiles to voice their opinions on politics, religion—and their jobs. Remember that your updates might come back to haunt you. Online complaints have gotten people laid off from their jobs and even evicted from their apartments. Russell advocates reining in the agitation. "While harsh words are often the first ones we find on our lips, once they're spit out into the world, they rarely bring back the intended results." This includes cursing, threatening someone in a business situation, and bullying others to change their views. A humble, gracious attitude will nearly always serve you best when engaging others. In his book, Simmons notes that a Michael Kors runway show during Fashion Week angered him because it used fur repeatedly. He opposes cruelty to animals and went on Twitter immediately to speak his mind. Instead of attacking Michael Kors, he tweeted "Michael Kors so talented. Beautiful clothes. Too much fur. Kinda hurts to sit thru." If he responded harshly, it might have ruined his relationship with the designer.

4. Give before you receive. To benefit from your network of individuals, support their goals first. By e-mailing or calling a prospect without first establishing a relationship, you will render yourself as unwelcome as spam. "To be a greater getter, you have to be a great giver," says Simmons. In the music industry, for example, the best way to score a record deal is to give your music away for free, get popular, and have record labels knock on your door. Simmons worked with a young rapper named Kurtis Blow when they were both first starting out in the early 1980s. Since Kurtis was a rapper, shopping around for a deal would lead to a dead end because labels considered hip-hop nothing more than a fad then. He started giving copies of his single Christmas Rappin' to DJs and clubs in Manhattan. Polygram records signed him because of the buzz the song created. Before you ask someone for a favor, think about how you can serve that person and you'll receive a more positive response when you need something later.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE