I Learned Lifelong Leadership Lessons in My First Job

First Job
Woody Zuill

This is  a little story about how I learned the right way to manage people.

My First Job: Age 13 or 14

When I was a kid, if I wanted something (like a slot-car, or a pellet gun), I could wait for my birthday or Christmas and hope my folks could afford to buy it for me, but beyond that it was pretty much up to me. So I pulled weeds, sold garden seeds or Christmas and greeting cards door-to-door, sold grapes on the roadside, delivered newspapers as a back up for friends who had paper-routes. Typical kid stuff for that day.

But those little jobs never brought in much money for the amount of work, so I decided to get a “real” job.

There was a plant nursery about a mile from my home, and they occasionally hired teens to water plants, move stuff, mix soil, plant seedlings into nursery cans, and similar nursery work. So, to make a long story a bit shorter: I asked for a job, and the owner of the nursery, Mr. Smith (his real name), hired me. He knew my folks.

Lesson One: Treat Everyone Nicely.

The day I started, the Mr. Smith introduced me to Bill (also his real name).

Mr. Smith: “It’s great to have you join us here. Bill is going to show you how to water the plants today – it’s not difficult, but there are a few important things you’ll need to know. You won’t have any trouble with it.”

Lesson Two: Continuous Improvement

Mr. Smith: “However, another part of the job is for you to think about what you are doing, and look for better ways to do things. Keep track of your hours, and next Saturday when I pay you for the week I want you to tell me one way to do things better. Look for problems, and think about how we could deal with them. Okay?”

Me: “I’ll do that”

Mr. Smith: “Great! Bill will take you out and show you what you’ll be doing”.

Lesson Three: Give People a Sense of the Importance of What They Do.

Bill: “Hey Woody, I’m glad Mr. Smith hired you. We’ve been too busy to take care of everything and we’ve got a very important job for you. Let me show you.”

We walked out into the nursery, and Bill grabbed a hose with a watering wand attached to the end and handed it to me.

Bill: “You are going to water the plants. It might seem simple, and in some ways it is. But these plants depend on us for their lives – they can’t get water without us. We water most of these plants every two days. Each plant is in a can just large enough to provide the room it needs for it’s roots. When you water a plant, give it just enough water to wet the roots completely, but no more – we don’t want to waste water. However, if you give it any less, the plant may possibly dry out too much by the next time we water, and that stresses and weakens the plant. Got it?”

Lesson Four: Most People Are Smart Enough To Figure Things Out. Let Them Do That.

Me: “Sounds good. How do I know what’s enough water?”

Bill: “Well, it’s a bit tricky. You have to check some of the plants after you’ve watered a row. Go back and see that a little water is dripping out the holes in the bottom. That shows you the whole root-ball has gotten some water. Keep your eyes open. If some of the plants start wilting a bit – you know you have to adjust your technique. You’ll figure it out”.

Me: “How do I tell if a plant is wilting?”

Bill: “Each species is a bit different, some need more water, some need less. It’s just something you get used to over time. You’ll figure it out.”

And so I did. I watered the plants. Hundreds and hundreds of plants. I dragged the hoses around, and I carefully watered each plant. I also went back to check some of the plants when I got to the end of a row to make sure I was doing things right. I watched for wilting plants.  I was careful to not waste water. IT WAS GREAT. I was outdoors all day, I was doing an important job and it gave Mr. Smith and Bill more time to work with customers, pot up plants, make deliveries and so on.

Lesson Five: Make Everyone Welcome; Not Just Feel Welcome, but Truly Welcome

After about 2 hours on the first day, Bill came over to me and said it was time for a break. A break? This was great! I get to work, I’m making money, AND I get to take a break. This was heaven. [Remember, I was just a kid and had no idea what work was actually like – I was just excited to be working]

Bill: “Hey Woody, let’s take a break. We take about 15 minutes every few hours to get in the shade and have a soda. Let me show you the soda machine.”

Soda machine? I had no money with me. I had no money, period.

We walked over around the back of the nursery to one of those old fashioned refrigerated coin-operated soda bottle vending machines with bottles of soda you pulled from a slot after opening the big, heavy, metal lid. They had rigged it so you didn’t need coins. Just pick out the drink you want. SWEET! And they had Vernors Ginger Ale. I was living high on the hog!

We sat and talked about plants, and the weather, and how wet you get watering plants. Bill was sincerely welcoming me.  He treated me kindly that day, and every day I worked with him. We were all there to work together, each of us depended on each other, and it was expected we would be polite and respectful in all things. I felt like I was part of the family already. And that never stopped.

Give People a Sense of the Importance of What They Do.

Lesson Six: Trust People

At the end of the week, I went to Mr. Smith to get paid. I handed him my notebook where I had written my hours for each day.

Mr. Smith: “Well, how was your first week?”

Me: “I loved it”

Mr. Smith: “Thanks for keeping track of your hours. Please add them up, and multiply by $1.25 per hour, and then go get your money out of the cash box under the front counter. Write down the total on a slip of paper and put it in the bottom of the cash box – I need it to do the taxes.”

I am not kidding. Maybe it was a different time back then, but I have a feeling it was much more than that.

Lesson Seven: Give Meaningful Feedback

Well, I got my money and went back to Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith: “So, how did it go this week? You getting a feel for the work?”

Me: “It went pretty great. I really like working with Bill. I like being outside all day. I like the pay. I like everything. I think I figured things out, and I made sure every plant got plenty of water without wasting any.”

Mr. Smith: “I’m glad to hear that.  We’re glad to have you here – it’s really helping us out. There is one thing we need to work on. I noticed you are very diligent, and you didn’t allow any of the plants to dry out, or even get stressed. That is exactly what we need.”

Me: (I couldn’t say anything I was so proud, but I was BEAMING!)

Mr. Smith: ”But… Bill and I can each water the plants in about half the time it takes you. I’d like to see if you can do it in about half the time too.”

We sat and talked about plants, and the weather, and how wet you get watering plants. Bill was sincerely welcoming me.

Lesson Eight: Let the Worker Figure Out How to Do the Job Better

Me (a bit saddened, but only a bit): “I thought I was doing a good job. I don’t want to kill any of the plants. How do I deal with that?”

Mr. Smith: “Well, the trick is to give each plant the exact amount of water it needs. No more, no less. We can’t measure the amount, because each plant is a bit different even for the same species: slightly different age, slightly different soil mix, a little more sun here, a little more shade there… that sort of thing”.

Me: “So how can I tell?”

Mr. Smith: “You’ll figure it out. Next week, I expect you to be able to water the whole nursery in half the time. It took me time to learn – it will probably take you time too.”

Me: “I’ll do my best”

Mr. Smith: “I have a feeling that your best is going to be better than my best. Let’s see how you do. So, remember I asked you to keep your eyes open for problems? Did you find any?””

Lesson Nine: Continuous Improvement Continued:

Me: “I remembered to look for problems, and I noticed that there was a leak in several of the hoses. It was wasting water and making the paths muddy.”

Mr. Smith: “What should we do?”

Me: “Well, I showed it to Bill, and he showed me how to fix the leaks. We did it yesterday.”

Mr. Smith: “That’s great. Let’s go get a soda.”

Lesson Ten: Reflect, Tune, Adjust

The next day, I tried to figure out how I could work faster and still water all the plants. One problem was that I still didn’t know how much “just enough” water was. I knew when the plants had too much water – it ran out of the can, and into the gravel – but without letting the plants get under watered, how would I know what too-little looked like?

My solution was to set aside one plant out of each 100 or so, a “test” for me to experiment with. I set them next to the edge along the row, and gave those plants about half the amount of water I had been giving all the other plants – 1/2 because I was taking twice as long as Mr. Smith needed. That seemed like a good starting point. At the end of the day, I checked those I had set aside along each row (about 200 plants or so overall) to look for wilting, dry soil, stuff like that. I lucked out. Each was fine.

Let the Worker Figure Out How to Do the Job Better

The next day, I checked the “test” plants, and most of them were doing just fine… so, I had my solution: I had been overly concerned about too little water, and it was taking too much time. Now I had “dialed in” the right amount.

So… the rest of that week, I used the new “correct” amount of water. I made sure to stay alert and keep my eyes open for wilting and drying – and it went well. Every now and then I’d spot one that was starting to stress, and I’d give those plants a bit more water with a watering can I carried for the purpose. Overall, it went very well.

Lesson Eleven: Continuous Improvement Revisited, and Listen to What the Worker Says, and… More Lessons

At the end of the week, I went in to Mr. Smith to get my pay, and report on improvements I wanted to suggest.

Mr. Smith: “Hey Woody. I was watching you this week. You really did a great job – all the plants look healthy with just a few dry ones here and there, and you got your time right where we need it to be. Thanks!”

Me: “Thanks for noticing, Mr. Smith. I was really glad I was able to figure it out. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to”.

Mr. Smith: “Well, I had no doubt. You care about the job you do. You pay attention, and learn from what you see. So.  What did you figure out we can improve on this week?”

Me: “I’ve been dragging that hose all over the place. There are only two faucets, one in the front and one in the back. I have to drag the hose back and forth, and up and down each row. I think it is taking a lot of time and effort just to do that, and it is wearing out the hoses.”

Mr. Smith: “How will you fix that?”

Me: “You want me to fix it? We’ll need to dig some ditches and lay some pipes, and put a faucet at the end of each row, and get a hose for each row. That’s a lot of work. I’ve never done that before.”

Mr. Smith: “Can you figure that out?”

Me: “I guess so. But it will cost a lot of money to do that.”

Lesson Twelve: Engage and See

Mr. Smith: “How much time do you think it will save?”

Me: “I think I’ll save a lot of time – maybe an hour or two each day”

Mr. Smith: “How can you prove that to me?”

Me (after thinking a while): “Well, I could put in one new faucet for one row, and keep track of how much time that saves me.  Then multiply that for each row. Will that work?”

Mr. Smith: “It might. Give it a try.”

Lessons Thirteen Through Infinity

That is just the start of the things I learned about the workplace and the way things should be.

So, What Happened Here?

I could go on like this for a long time. This was my first two weeks working at the best job I’ve ever had. Kind people, trusting people. They were trustworthy, and expected me to be trustworthy. They worked hard and expected me to work hard.

Even more, they worked smart, and expected me to work smart. I was 13 (or 14, I don’t quite remember). I was just a kid. They treated me as an equal, and expected out of me as much as they expected out of themselves.

Worst thing: This spoiled me for all other jobs. I worked there after school and on weekends all through high school, and after high school I continued on and off for a few years. I learned a lot – about plants, and more importantly, about work, how to treat people, how to “manage”, and how to “lead”. And how good it could (and should) be.

I haven’t been able to live up to my memory of Mr. Lawrence Smith, and I have fallen short of what I think he expected of me and my life, and in how I treat others. I miss him still, all these many years later (he died long ago.) God Bless You, Mr. Smith – you were, and are to me, one of the best.


For this post, Switch and Shift thanks our friends at Zuill.us!


Art by: lionpelt – 66

Woody Zuill is a computer programmer who has a deep interest in Agile Software Development, shortening the feedback loop, eliminating waste ala Lean Development. In his spare time he enjoys hiking, mountain biking, the mountains, banjo picking, extreme downhill bowling and pan scrapings. Of particular interest to Woody right now is StoryTest Driven Development, why the “Waterfall” development process fails, why Agile development methodologies are worth looking into, Unit/Micro testing, TDD, BDD, and Acronym Driven Develpoment (ADD).

  • Emond Claude

    I really lové your story Woody. I coach and train project managers and all that you say here is gold for them to learn and apply. I will share with the world, as you did. :). Merci. Claude

  • Russ Schwartz

    What a great story!  When I do “projects” with my 3 grandsons (now 13, 10, and 7), I try to use an approach similar to what Mr. Smith did with you.  Thanks for sharing!

  • Pingback: I Learned Lifelong Leadership Lessons in My First Job | People Discovery()

  • Integtrn

    This was really good to read. Thank you.

  • Jlzimmerman

    These lessons are so simple it is unfortunate that many managers feel a need to lead by force and not encouragement.

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