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(Mostly) Everything I Needed to Know about Business I Learned on My First Job

Earlier this month I turned 50. For many people, a milestone such as this inspires one to spend the day reflecting on one's life, lessons, loves, etc. Fortunately, I am not one of those people—I spent the day fishing and driving through the beautiful swamps of Florida. Still, at 50 and with the company I started approaching 5 years at the end of this month, I do feel like I am far enough along in my career to start putting together some conclusions. And this first one isn't pretty.

I work primarily with tech companies--small business and start ups, innovators and disrupters, the bold and the fearless. It's fun. But while shorts and flip flops are fine during development, at some point everyone needs to be able to conduct themselves with at least a moderate level of business decorum. Sadly, too many people I encounter at these companies are not prepared to do simple things like come to a meeting prepared, follow a schedule, or submit work on time.

Amazingly, many in the youngest generation of professionals that I meet are learning how to comport themselves in a professional environment for the very first time—they are literally in their first job ever. With COVID-19 decimating industries traditionally rife with entry-level opportunities, such as food service and retail, I fear the teens of today have even fewer opportunities to learn these basic skills before they graduate college or trade school, and they must learn them on a job they need to pay their bills—a much higher risk situation than a weekend job at a fast food joint to earn gas and fun money.

What did I learn in my first job? Pretty much everything I needed to! My first job-type job was at the Taco Bell in Southampton, PA. I lasted only a few months, but even such a short stint was enough to lay the foundation for a career. Here are the highlights:

  1. The easiest way for most people to get a job is to know a respected employee at the company. My best friend recommended me to the manager, I filled out the form neatly and completely, had an interview on the spot, and walked out with a uniform and shift schedule. My friend's word was my foot in the door, and I did the rest. Was the recommendation itself enough? Of course not—but the manager had a positive opinion of me before I even came in, and it was my job to lose. That's very different than pursuing a job you have to win.

  2. The customer is not always right, but he is always the customer. I've heard and read that many times, and it is spot on. Taco Bell did not exist to give teenagers jobs, it existed to provide food for hungry people in exchange for money. If the customer calls you a jacka$$, you don't get to call him one back. If you've done your best to help the customer, it is time to is calmly tell the customer you need the manager to address his issues, and then make it the manager's problem—that's one of the reasons the manager is there. When the customer leaves, you still have your job. Call the customer a jacka$$, and you are the one walking out the door. I dealt with hundreds of customers. Most liked me, a few didn't. So what? I still got my paycheck, which is why I was there.

  3. Autograph your work with excellence. That phrase was said to me many years later by a different boss, but the principle is universal, and certainly applied at Taco Bell. Make the best burrito you can. Scrub the pot until it shines. Mop every square inch of the floor. Do more than you are asked. Doing great work gets you noticed. It builds trust. You know who gets the best shifts, the spot raises, and the best duties? The person the manager doesn't have to worry about. I was assigned bathroom cleanup duty one time in my tenure, but spent many shifts on the register and the drive-thru.

  4. Everyone matters. At the Bell, you were responsible to find someone to cover if you couldn't work a scheduled shift. That's pretty hard if you don't build healthy relationships with your co-workers. One might open a door for you the next time you need a job too. Maybe you can do the same for her. All kinds of people work these jobs—all ages, backgrounds. Get to know them. This helps you learn how to deal with and work with the wide variety of people you will encounter throughout your career.

  5. Business is a team sport--everyone wins or you all lose. "It's not my job." Yes, yes it is. If the there's no line at the register and you're asked to help take out the trash, TAKE OUT THE TRASH. If you're working the line and a customer calls for some extra sauce packets, stop what you're doing and get them the packets.

  6. Be on time…for everything. Being on time proves you are dependable, and dependable people get the breaks—or rather create the breaks for themselves. Making others wait for you is disrespectful and arrogant, and in a team environment like Taco Bell, it disrupts the entire operation. There are times it simply can’t be helped, and most people are understanding, but if you are routinely late? I watched my Taco Bell manager send people home if they were five minutes late for their shift and it was a habit. Years later I had another boss who would stand at the front door at 8:01 a.m. and spend 5-10 minutes greeting everyone who came in late with a hearty "good afternoon." This was a not so subtle reminder that paid work started at 8:00. We were co-located with the customer paying the bills, so it was important to show the customer that the company respected their money and the needs they were paying us to fix.

  7. It's okay to quit, but go out the right way. It wasn't long before I got to choose between coming home smelling like tacos or wearing a shirt and tie standing at a register as a cashier at Sears (where I was a third generation employee--see #1 above). Was Sears a better choice? It was for me; for others, it was not. And I love tacos. My friend stayed there for years while I only made it a few months, and my leaving had no negative impact on him. I didn't make a spectacle when I left: I respectfully talked with my manager, worked my remaining shifts, and thanked him. Months later that same manager paid me out of his own pocket to do a thorough cleaning of the kitchen. Can you guess if I did a good job?

My first corporate job required me to move across the country to a place where I knew no one and had no connections. Would that have been a good situation in which to learn these valuable lessons?

I learned many more lessons over the years, of course. Have I always executed flawlessly on the basics? No, but at least I understood the consequences and made an informed choice. These are the fundamentals I learned, and they have served me well. I encourage you to give a young person the chance to learn them too—before they torpedo their first "good job." And if it is their first job ever, offer some coaching and mentoring before your fire them for acting like a teenager.

Because everyone matters, I ask you to share: What did you learn on your first job?


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