Leadership Lessons From Our First Jobs

Recently, with summer approaching, it got me thinking about the teenagers heading off to their first jobs.

I remember being a teenager and excited for my first job. Without any formal experience, I had no idea how to land a job. My parents encouraged me to apply as a server at a restaurant where my parents knew one of the managers. I applied and landed an interview with the general manager. I’ll never forget him asking me to sell him a set of salt and pepper shakers, even though he already had nine sets at home. I have no idea what I said as I tried not to let on how dumb I thought the question was. I guess I convinced him to buy another set, because he gave me the job.

That summer, my eyes opened to a lot of things. I’m pretty sure one of the cooks misused alcohol and his eyes would be bloodshot and his words would slur by the end of our shifts. I saw him stashing a cup in an odd place by the dirty dishes containers, which was not by him in the kitchen. He would sneak off to the cup, take a sip and put it back. I was pretty innocent about alcohol at that point in my life and I remember sneaking a smell of the cup and it didn’t smell like anything I had smelled before. At some point that summer, I poured a little bit in a “to go” cup and brought it home for my dad to smell. He confirmed that it was alcohol. I didn’t have confidence to speak up to anyone and hoped one of the longer tenured employees would say something. I mean, if it was obvious to me, I figured it was noticeable to others; however, the manager who worked my shift was always in the back office. The leadership lesson I learned from that was to be engage with your staff. Even if you don’t have an alcohol issue to address, there are so many things you learn by being around and spending time with your staff.

I worked the late shift, which closed down the restaurant at midnight. While my manager wasn’t around during the shift, he was always around when it was time to lock the doors and made sure everyone got to their vehicles safely. I appreciated the lesson that it was important to make sure staff always felt safe leaving work, especially if they worked late.

Another lesson I learned is how money can make people do mean things. As a server, I got paid minimum wage and got to keep any tips I earned. I remember the first shift I worked with a college girl. I had not had a table not leave a tip for me, yet. At the start of our shift, my first three tables left no tip. I asked the cashier if she had set aside any tips for me and she said that no one left any tips with her. I also checked the printer where a tip “receipt” printed out if someone left it on a credit card and there was nothing. Then, one of the bussers told me that he saw the college girl take my tips. This meant I needed to become vigilant about watching when my tables were ready to leave so that my tips didn’t get swiped. If I had that summer to do over now as a leader, I would have had a conversation with the college girl about tips and how it feels when someone takes something that is rightfully mine.

The other lesson I learned is that an accessible leader is important to teenagers during their first jobs. That summer, I received three marriage proposals. The creepiest one happened when I was waiting on a table with two older men. One of them commented on the nice job I had done taking care of them that night. Then, he asked if I wanted to marry him. I told him that I wasn’t available. He then said he had a room in his home and I could move in any time. I told him I wasn’t interested. I left the table and sought the manager to finish up the check for that table. Thankfully, he did and the men left without incident, although they left me a very large tip.

I thought it was interesting thinking about my first job and what I learned, so I asked a bunch of my clients what their first jobs were and their take aways based on the leaders they had in those jobs. Here’s what I learned:

  • Lifeguards: This experience truly was fun in the sun and leadership let it be so, although it was challenging needing to enforce the rules with friends, too. One client’s mom was diagnosed with stage 4 skin cancer at the end of the summer and it made her rethink this work. It set her up for a medical career later. Another client said she learned that you can slap a title on a teenager and give her a whistle and people will listen to her.
  • Local Pharmacy staff: This experience fluctuated from good directions to no directions, yet all of the women felt empowered by the leadership, even though they were young. One client even received free lunch made by the owner’s wife when she worked on Saturdays.
  • Restaurant servers: This job taught them to multi-task and work under pressure. The camaraderie with other servers is something they wish every workplace had. Management was visible and provided real-time feedback, which allowed for immediate growth opportunities.
  • Medical office staff: These women worked in their parent’s medical offices doing anything from medical coding to helping restock supplies. They learned how kind others could be at work.
  • Fitness staff: This experience taught them that they could be treated like adults even while they were teenagers.
  • Bakery staff: This position required early starts to the day when friends were sleeping in. They were able to experience a wide variety of work, which helped them not be bored. One of them spilled an entire tray of six dozen powdered sugar cake donuts. The baker told her to pick them up carefully as she wasn’t making them again and they would sell them anyway. She learned to be honest in her work dealings because she didn’t like the deception and unsanitary decision.
  • Gas station attendant: One client worked at the gas station in a rural town. The owners were awful and it made her appreciate the need for even basic courtesies at work.

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As a leader, you might not have thought about all the ways you impact others and may have some blind spots that are hurting those around you. I love helping women leaders surface blind spots as it helps them become even stronger leaders. If you’re ready to be a stronger leader, click here and set up a time to talk.

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