Work’s Peaks and Valleys

My first real job was as a busboy at Yanko’s Restaurant. My friend, Jim, got me the job. He instilled a work ethic in me I’ve never forgotten. I earned $2.35 per hour, which back then was enough to pay for gas (60 cents per gallon), concert tickets ($4), records ($5), books ($8), etc.

After I graduated from high school, I worked the graveyard shift at Lawsons, a convenience store famous for its milk and orange juice. If you lived in the North in the seventies, you probably heard the “roll on Big O” commercials, featuring truck drivers getting the fresh-squeezed orange juice from Florida to the stores in “forty hours.” YouTube it. I liked that job as well. I went to work, punched the time clock, and when I left, headed home without a worry.

Jon got me a job working for his uncle as a land surveyor’s assistant. I worked two to three days a week and studied psychology and philosophy at the local college the other two days. This job paid much better. The work was more varied. Being outdoors was a plus. Part-time surveying paid well enough to cover the cost of college and rent, since I lived with three other friends near campus. College was cheaper then. Eating and doing my laundry at my parent’s house helped stretch the paycheck.

After college, I worked for a while at ChickenFest Restaurant. My friend, Ray, arranged for me to get hired. His step father, a successful real estate developer, was opening a restaurant. Bringing Barberton chicken (well-loved) to the neighboring city of Akron was his idea. Not a good one, it turns out. Ray’s step father was wealthy from doing real estate, but he lost money at ChickenFest. I quit before he sold the building to developers starting a comedy club.

I had ill-formed plans to start my own business, but I decided to respond to an ad for a job at Waldenbooks. (Are you getting the sense that I did not really know what I wanted to do with my life?) I started at the bottom and loved the work. I liked books and helping customers. The promotions came quickly. As the pay increased, so did the headaches. I became a manager, but I wasn’t skilled in many leadership functions. I was smart, knew the product, displayed the merchandise well, served the customers, scheduled effectively, etc. but lacked good interpersonal communication skills when dealing with my employees. My focus on customers helped me to get my store noticed, but the improved results were mainly from my spending long hours on the job in my drive to succeed. I did not know much about motivating people or handling conflicts. When a new, bigger, district store position was offered, I took it. I learned from my earlier shortcomings, focusing more on developing good relationships with the staff and building a team. We had a couple good years, but the challenge of the work was gone. Monotony. I shocked everyone, giving two week’s notice once I decided I was bored. I moved without having another job lined up. You can be impulsive when you don’t have a mortgage or a family depending on you.

Somehow, I managed to rent an apartment in my hometown without a job. Try that today. Fortunately, I was hired that same week, following my first interview. I worked at a retail art store/frame shop. I was an assistant manager and enjoyed learning on the job. I started teaching part-time, working at the frame shop during the days and teaching several evenings a week. Forty hours at the frame shop, 12 hours in the classroom, and about 20 hours of grading and prep work eventually became too much for me, even though I was a twenty-something. I recall falling asleep one time at the frame shop while standing up. Horses can do it, but I did not know it was possible for people.

I quit working at the frame shop, taking a part-time position as the evening supervisor at the college where I was teaching part-time. Math lesson: two part-time jobs does not equal one full-time job. After five years of working at this college, I had the chance to help start a new learning center at a regional campus of Ohio University. This new position provided free tuition, enabling me to return to graduate school, earn two degrees and start a career, not a series of jobs, in higher education.

I’ve worked at seven different colleges as an administrator and faculty member. Colleges are unusual places to work, but the workplace dynamics in higher education aren’t much different than they were restaurants, retail stores, and construction. People are still people, even if they have advanced degrees. Egos are larger, but you’ll find the same characters everywhere: the talkers, the users, the politicians, the hard workers, the complainers, the cheerleaders, the suck-ups, the bullies, the slackers, the backstabbers, the saints, etc.

Culture determines the quantities of these characters in each workplace. People hire and promote people like themselves. People who don’t fit in, tend to leave. So, over time, the dominant culture in the workplace is reinforced. For example, if long hours and hard work is valued, you’ll find more and more people doing just that as time passes. If talk is what counts, you’ll end up with lots of talkers. To analyze culture, ask: What is important to the employees and the bosses? Are the same things important at all levels? How do the employees treat their coworkers and clients? Do the employees really care about the services or products they are selling, or do they mainly care about their paycheck?

Power is another important workplace factor to analyze. How are leaders chosen and how do they exercise power? Do they yell at people, fire those they don’t like, blame others, outsource jobs, shun responsibility, waste people’s time and money, hold grudges and act unfairly? Or, do the leaders respect everyone, listen to their co-workers, make carefully considered decisions, develop people’s skills, and mentor others? Research suggests that when the top leaders in an organization act ethically, so too do the rest of the workers. Unethical leadership, on the other hand, spawns unethical subordinates. Leaders, not surprisingly, are role models.

According to today’s theories, leadership is a role that anyone in an organization can play under the right circumstances. Some people are more relationship oriented while others are more task oriented. An employee exercising a leadership role helps make sure the job gets done (task oriented), but also helps build good relationships, mending hurt feelings and encouraging teamwork. Simply saying the right things at the right times for the good of the organization is fulfilling a leadership function.

The good leader has to be flexible, not simply telling people what to do (like I did at my first manager’s job). The best leaders understand what makes people tick; they know how to motivate people, and they get things done. They are emotionally intelligent.

If you want to take on a greater role as a leader in your workplace, consider a few things. First, know the culture. Understand what’s really important. In my first manager’s job at Waldenbooks, I focused on increasing profits. My store had one of the highest increases in profits in the country. I was praised, but this accomplishment, I soon figured out, was not nearly as important as having a creative promotion. The manager of the store that brought in sand and made a beach-like display for summer reading was promoted to district manager soon thereafter. Style was more important than substance at that point in time because the leadership was focused on changing the store’s image, not on profits. Second, be a good team player. Use your interpersonal communication skills. Listen well. Show up on time. Praise others. Help keep the group on task, but pay attention to developing good relationships. Don’t complain. Sacrifice for the common good. Third, find a mentor. Try to build a relationship with someone who has the kind of job you want. Your mentor will have valuable information to share and will offer you good advice. Fourth, find a workplace that helps you to develop your skills, provides opportunities for advancement, and cares about its customers and employees. Choose an industry that does not harm society.

I’ve been fairly lucky so far. I’ve learned a great deal everywhere I’ve worked. I’ve had a few great bosses. My mentors have helped me grow in many ways. My co-workers have often opened my eyes to new ways of doing things and have encouraged me when I’ve needed it the most. In my university jobs, from adjunct instructor to dean, I’ve been honored to be given the responsibility of helping to lead efforts to develop people’s knowledge and learning skills.

Work is an important part of our lives. Most of us will spend a good chuck of our lives at work, so planning for a fulfilling career is worth your time. The dozen years I spent after college, moving from one job to another, were worthwhile, but the time could have been better spent. In my career in higher education, I’ve had a few jobs where I felt joy every day I went to work, even when I faced challenges. Search for those jobs; cherish them when you find them. Work relationships, like romantic relationships, have peaks and valleys. Enjoy the times when you are riding high. When you travel in the valley, look for a mountain to climb. Plan for the trip.

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