From twenty years of teaching future business leaders, I can tell you that many of them hail from top schools, have traveled the world, speak several languages and know their way around Wall Street. But there’s a common gap in their impressive resumes: plenty of MBA students have never had a job that required hard, physical work.
Not long ago, manual labor was a rite of passage into nearly every industry. Bussing tables, shingling a roof, thinning sugar beets -- the kind of demanding, often repetitive, work that left you bone-tired at the end of the day.
Some may feel that it's a privilege to avoid that kind of work -- but I don’t. Business is more than sitting at a desk to generate spreadsheets; it’s knowing how people work together. Someone who’s never worked on a farm, in a restaurant or in a mailroom may have trouble relating to the kinds of physical labor people have been doing for millennia, and on which much of the global economy still relies.
I actually feel privileged that my first couple of jobs taught me about the satisfaction, pain, and potential of careers that begin with just plain old hard work.
Like many kids who have mowed lawns or set up lemonade stands, I learned about the world of work by experimenting with the basics of entrepreneurship. At age 11, I started a fresh-produce delivery service in the small Michigan town where I grew up. I planted, cultivated, and harvested my crops, and hired my 6-year-old brother to convert his Radio Flyer wagon into a delivery truck.
My take for an entire summer of exhausting work? A whopping $14. Not enough to replace his wagon with a real truck, but more than enough to give me a taste of how business works, and how work is at the heart of business. I learned that running your own concern is hard -- especially when success depends on the weather and the neighbors’ summer vacation plans.
Indeed, the uncertainty and relative unprofitability of my first venture drove me to find a steady paycheck. At 14, I managed to get hired at the cafeteria at Michigan State University. Five days a week, starting at 7 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m., I bussed tables for 75 cents an hour. My boss was gruff and demanding, and I had a long bike commute on either side; but my paycheck added up to $25 per week -- twice as much in a week as I’d earned in a whole summer of growing vegetables.
Plus, I was getting a hands-on feel for how a conventional career path works. If I excelled at bussing dishes, I could move up to dishwasher for five cents more per hour. And who knew where that could lead?
For me, it was to the college mailroom, where I delivered interdepartmental mail in a Cushman 3-wheeler. This meant getting to know faculty in the biochemistry department. Soon, they hired me to clean pipettes, operate a gas chromatograph, and dispose of ‘used’ laboratory rats. By then I was making twice what I did in the cafeteria.
Before long, a few biochemistry grad students, having noticed my ability to keep the lab tidy, hired me to clean their dorm rooms. Overseeing the cleaning of a dozen messy student rooms presented the chance to be my own boss again. The pay was right and the hours flexible, so I put traditional ladder-climbing back on hold.
I wasn’t even out of high school and already I’d tasted two primary career modes – working for others and working for myself. I’d become familiar with the drawbacks and rewards of each; and I would shuttle back and forth between the two for the next fifty years, working my way through consulting, real estate, teaching, founding an investment firm and serving on boards.
But I got those early insights by starting on the bottom floor – or, sometimes, in the basement. It may sound old-fashioned now, but yes, I learned to work the old-fashioned way: laboring from dawn to dusk, being on time, keeping customers happy, and looking for smart ways to make a few extra cents.
At today’s elite graduate schools, it’s easy to forget that, for many people, the type of labor that formed my own view of work isn’t only the stuff of summer jobs. It’s how billions of workers put food on the table, support their families and pay the rent.
Understand this, and you’ll be a better leader – in touch with employees from the headquarters to the tarmac, from the boardroom to the construction site. In my case, it started with vegetables, a wagon, and $14. Decades later, the numbers have grown a bit; but what hasn’t changed is the desire to work hard alongside people at every level of an organization, building something that’s meaningful to all concerned.
First published on and featured in: My First Job.
Please post your comments to Joel's OkemosAlumni.Org profile page