Saturday, June 6, 2009

What My Summer Job Taught Me

With millions of high-schoolers and young adults heading out to the workforce for their first summer jobs this month, the WSJ ran an interesting item, "The Strange Summer Jobs of 23 Famous People."

While it is satisfying to think of Rod Stewart as a gravedigger, Brad Pitt in a chicken suit, and a young Colin Powell selling furniture, this article also acted as a catalyst for me to think about my first summer job. I worked at a Dairy Queen (just like Gwen Stefani, it turns out), and here's what I learned there:

1. The concept of mandatory effort/discretionary effort is real. I hadn't yet heard these terms, but before long (maybe a week), I had figured out just how much work I needed to do and how fast I needed to do it to avoid getting in trouble. Every one of your staff members knows where this line is as well. Those leaders who can tap into discretionary effort and get more than what is mandatory will be most successful. Not getting the maximum discretionary effort from people represents the greatest waste in most businesses today, and if leaders addressed this, most layoffs and waste-reduction efforts would not be necessary.

2. Find out the most important part of your job and do it better than anyone else. The rest is pretty simple. For example, though no one told me early on, I quickly found out that the most important part of my job was keeping the soft-serve mix bags in the cooler from emptying. Duh, you say, it is a DQ, and people will want soft-serve ice cream, but hey, give me a break, I was 15! Don't make anyone ever guess what is most important to the business overall, to you, and to their individual success. Are your staff members confused about priorities?

3. The true leader isn't always the one with the title. Every shift at the DQ had a crew chief as you might expect, but then there was a lady named Ruth. Ruth had worked there since the Dairy Queen was a Dairy Princess, and her combination of tenure and confidence and fearlessness made her a leader though she was not a formal crew chief. I made sure I didn't cross her, and often looked to her for guidance before I checked with my boss. Do you know who the influential informal leaders are in your business? Do you recognize that some people have more influence than others and deal with them accordingly? Fortunately, Ruth was generally a positive force and presence, but I have seen many cases where the informal leaders were negative influences, and those teams and businesses were almost always dysfunctional.

What about you? Any lessons you learned at your first summer job?

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