I was lucky that the first boss I ever had (at age 13) had much to teach at a point when I had much to learn. Chris M. was a brilliant but illiterate Italian immigrant and fisherman who had built a landmark restaurant and marina on the bay in Ocean City, New Jersey. That was my first lesson: You don’t have to be book smart to be smart.
I was a kid looking for my first summer job and using my brother’s social security card and name because I wasn’t yet legal to work. I walked into the seafood market next to the dining room and asked a man behind the counter if they needed any summer help. “Go see that guy,” he said pointing to Chris, who was standing on the dock talking to a couple of older gentlemen who were peeling shrimp. Chris, a fit, swarthy sixty-something smiled at my offer to work for him, and asked, “How old are you?” I lied and I think he knew it, but he didn’t press. “Can you paint?” he asked. I lied again, and within an hour I was standing on the roof of the fish market with a brush, a roller and a five-gallon can of oil-base silver paint. I’d watched my father paint before and at least knew what the implements were, but the actual skill was missing. By the end of my first day of employment, I was covered with paint, but had moved along the experience curve sufficiently to coat most of the roof as well. Chris inspected my work and smiled again. The job was roughly done, but it was done. “You finished,” he said, “not bad.” So far I had no job offer, but apparently my commitment to finish the job was more important than my work experience. That was my second lesson: Attitude first. “Come again tomorrow morning at 7:00” Chris said.
I arrived early the next day and found Chris standing on the dock next to a ladder that had been tied in several places to a fifty-foot telephone pole. “Today we’ll paint the mast,” he said, and waited for my reaction. I think I may have lost my breath for a moment as I gazed upwards, but Chris reassured me, “Don’t worry, I’ll help.” Chris then proceeded to critique my painting from the previous day and offered some tips on ladder safety, loading the brush and applying the paint. “I’ll paint the top,” Chris offered and then ascended without apparent effort to the top of the ladder where he stood on the yard (see photo) to paint the top of the pole. Holding paint can and mast with one hand and painting with the other, someone five times my age struck a figure like a Flying Wallenda. I was in awe. And while there were drop cloths on the deck, nary a speck of paint fell from above. This was my third lesson: Age is not an excuse for inactivity.
After painting to just below the yard, Chris descended and handed me the paint and brush. “You can hook the can on the ladder,” he said “and hold on tight. Don’t reach too far. We’ll move the ladder to hit the farther spots.” Cautiously, I climbed the ladder, clenching paint and brush in one hand, until I reached the point just below the yard. I have never been as scared as I was at that moment. My trembling hand caused paint to fall at first in every direction. In a calm voice, Chris encouraged me, “You’re doing fine, just take it slow.” With each rung that I descended, my capability and confidence increased. Chris continued to watch until he was comfortable that I had the knack. By the time I reached the deck I had a sense of accomplishment. The drop cloths were speckled with paint, but job or no job, I’d done something I would have previously considered impossible. For some reason, I felt like I owed it to Chris, a man whom I’d just met, to finish the painting.
Looking back on the experience now I realize how rare an experience that was to have had the attention of the most senior person. This was my final lesson: Chris’s success derived from his penchant to develop others around him. Chris appeared as I was finishing. “You can begin tomorrow in our fish market. I pay $1.25 an hour.” Best job I ever had.
Do you have a Chris in your past? Please share a story.
PS Which reminds me. GBMP's 12th annual gathering of more than 500 Lean practitioners - The Northeast Lean Conference - is just two weeks away. If you haven't considered attending it yet, I sincerely hope you will take a look at the website - the agenda, the session abstracts and more - and consider attending and bringing an employee or two- to show your interest in their personal and professional development. You'll be glad you did!