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First Job...Lasting Impressions
Many Valuable Lessons Learned In Our First Jobs

by Craig Harrison
September 1, 2002 
edition of  
California Job Journal Magazine

Do you remember your first job? More importantly, do you remember valuable lessons learned from your first job? Many people tend to disregard or look with disdain on their first paying jobs. For some, the often menial nature and low pay obscures great value that can be derived from these formative experiences. A look at successful professionals from all walks of life shows valuable lessons learned, skills acquired, ethics instilled and experiences gained that have helped them to this day. You may be learning more than you think at your first job. It's not just what is in the job description that can help you in your career. First jobs make a lasting impression!

Transferable Skills: From the Cafeteria to Computers

Many of the skills developed in first jobs can be transferred to new jobs and even across fields. Working at a McDonalds or a Wendy's doesn't consign you to a career in the food industry. Consider the story of one food service employee whose experience in Ohio ultimately led to a lucrative career in California.

Leslie Haynes' first paying job was as a cashier in a cafeteria style restaurant. Patrons ordered and paid Leslie first, and then received their food. As soon as the eatery opened each morning a particular customer from a corporate office across the street would arrive with a detailed list and order a dozen beverages for her co-workers: "ice tea/no lemon;" "ice tea with lots of ice;" "Coke with a little 7-Up." "Coke with no ice." etc. No one on the serving line wanted to deal with this order. Some employees even hid when they saw this customer coming. And, inevitably, they would get the order wrong! In order to serve this customer better, Leslie began personally taking the woman's order. After collecting the money she would close the cash register and then carefully fill the complete order herself. Then She'd reopen the cash register again for next customer.

One day, the woman came in with her order and handed Leslie a business card from her boss, who wanted Leslie to come over for an interview. The boss had reasoned, "anyone who can be that efficient should work for us." And, that's the story of how Leslie got her first corporate job, working on computers, handling paralegal work for Mead Data Central in Dayton, Ohio. Today Leslie is a computer operator for a major database company in Northern California. Over the ensuing years her ability to organize, prioritize and handle complicated tasks (and customers) has helped her win many jobs and promotions.

More than Skills Are Transferable: Strawberry Fields Aren't Forever

Often it's not just the skill one transfers from a first job, but also a work ethic. Often times values are formed, qualities are developed and meaningful lessons are internalized. Consider the story of Michiyo Montague. His first paying job was picking strawberries on a farm in Puyallup Washington for $1 a flat. Everyday while in the field he would see a busload of strawberry pickers arrive about 10 rows away from his group. However, unlike his group, the other group did not stop work to have strawberry fights and arguments. Nor was the other group heard whining. Michiyo watched in amazement as each worker focused on his task until their break. There was little talk amongst themselves but by the end of the day they had earned about ten times more than Michiyo's group. Why? because they kept their focus.

Michiyo learned early on from observing these workers that "you must focus, focus, focus on the mission at hand." Says Michiyo: "I might not be the smartest person in the world or the most athletic but I do know the meaning of focus. I earned my BA and graduate degree by keeping my focus. I started my business by keeping my focus and I keep in great shape by keeping my focus. When playing with my kids, I focus on them, giving them 100% of my attention. Through focus you will block out all the distractions and things that really don't contribute to your bottom line and in the end you will get more out of your day and your life." Michiyo picked up more than strawberries on the farm. He picked up an approach to work and life which has helped him enjoy the fruits of his labors. Today, as the president of Settlement Alternatives, Michiyo still harkens back to the lesson learned in the fields of Puyallup.

Nuts and Bolts Training

For Charles Schwab, growing up in Yolo County California afforded him the opportunity to become entrepreneurial at an early age. His first paying job involved picking up walnuts, sacking them and then selling them for $5 per 100-pound bag. Schwab learned early that "the only way you could make a go of any enterprise was first, to find a profitable business concept; then begin to take practical steps to put the concept into action; and finally putting in the extra hours to turn a profit." Some of his friends who picked with him thought he was nuts when times got hard and sales slowed and yet he kept picking. In fact, some of them bolted, But Schwab persevered. "I quickly learned that if I kept at it and plowed right through the rejections I would eventually get somebody to buy my wares."

Today San Francisco-based Charles Schwab & Co. brokerage services employs 14,800 and has sales of $3.3 Billion. Whether it's picking nuts or stocks hard work and perseverence pays off!

Little Things Make the Difference: The Difference is No Little Thing

For George Zimmer, President of The Men's Wearhouse, little things make the difference. Mr. Zimmer's first paying job was working for a newspaper, collecting fees from the delivery boys as well as helping them collect from their customers. He handled an area that had approximately 25 delivery boys. According to Zimmer, "the most important lesson I learned was that the devil is in the details."

Years later The Men's Wearhouse is known for their attention to detail. At over 400 stores in the United States customers' sizes and measurements are kept on file in a national database for ease of recall at whichever location a customer returns to. They also regularly call back customers within 14 days of a purchase to insure their satisfaction. Furthermore, they remain ever ready to sew loose buttons and press slacks, blazers and suits whenever customers have a need, even when they are travelling away from home. As you can see, attention to detail is a quality which transcends occupations.

A Matter of Perspective: Things Are Picking Up!

Some would balk at an entry level job with minimum pay and menial tasks. Charles Solomon did at first. In his first paying job Charles was the lowest paid employee at a job in a corporate headquarters of a chain of jewelry and bead stores. His first week he literally counted beads for hours. Later he was 'promoted' to emptying the trash throughout the company at each day's end. There he went, bag in hand, from department to department collecting refuse. No glamour, no glory. Yet without realizing it Charles was picking up more than trash: he was meeting everyone in the company, and getting a close-up look at how each department operated. Soon Charles was ready for more meaningful work, and by then he had begun understanding how each department saw the company, as well as their role in its success. Years later as Charles rose up at a different retail company, he had an appreciation for how the clerks on the loading dock saw the company, how the accounting, legal and marketing departments each related to the organization.

Golden Rule Leads to Gold: Labels Are For Products...Not People

For Rudy Hurwich, retired co-founder and CEO of Dymo Industries in Berkeley, it all started with a paid job in his parent's suburban junior department store outside of Chicago. Earning his allowance money as an after-school clerk, Rudy watched how his parents employed the golden rule, treating customers as they themselves liked to be treated. This made an indelible impression on Rudy, whose later jobs included manual labor on a factory production line and service as a Navel officer in World War II. Each subsequent job, in its own way, reinforced his feeling that everyone is different, but they all appreciate being treated respectfully.

Fifteen years later Hurwich founded Dymo Industries. As his operation grew, Hurwich had the opportunity to hire managers who shared his belief in the value of treating employees well. At the time it was bought out by a larger company Dymo had 5,000 employees. Their sense of feeling valued and appreciated was borne of Hurwich's internalizing of the golden rule during his first paying job as a teen.

A First For Knowledge

One never knows where a job will lead. First jobs are a right of passage. They teach us valuable and memorable lessons which we can apply to future jobs and throughout our careers. Sometimes the true lessons we learn aren't readily apparent or appreciated at the time. It may be years later when we look back and can see more clearly what we learned and how we've applied those lessons. No experience is wasted!

Your attitude in any job should be to learn as much as you can about the job, its tools and technology, your co-workers, company and customers. The more you know the more you grow. As you rise on the ladder of success periodically look back at your first job and appreciate the lasting impressions it has made on you. Congratulations...you've come a long way!

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Craig Harrison's first paid job involved going door to door selling used jokes to his neighbors in Berkeley. Today he is a speaker, trainer and communication coach who helps others communicate with clarity and confidence. Contact him at (510) 547-0664, www.ExpressionsofExcellence.com or send e-mail to Craig@ExpressionsOfExcellence.com.

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© Copyright 1999-2002 Craig Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

To schedule an engagement, contact Craig by email: craig@craigspeaks.com
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