I needed a summer job between my senior year in high school and college. In Republic, Ohio the options were limited. Kids looking for jobs could work on their family farm (my family sold our farm, so this was out for me), babysit (I did this for a summer when I was 16 and was not eager to sign up again), work at the local factory (my sister took the factory job, and only one kid per family was allowed), work in the fast food industry (I wasn’t interested in working nights and weekends), so I did what was natural for any kid who had just graduated from high school: I signed up to work the summer custodial crew at a local college, mainly responsible for cleaning the recently vacated dorm rooms.
I grew up cleaning houses and offices for spending money, so the work I could handle. Getting to work at 6am – no problem. Cleaning the most awful crud you can imagine – including scraping boogers off dorm room walls – done. (Yes, just visualize that for a moment.) What I soon learned I could not handle was the work ethic and attitudes of my co-workers. I wanted to be busy all day, but they were content to stretch 15 minute breaks into 30. There was constant complaining. They were not happy with their jobs. I knew this was going to be the longest summer of my life.
One week into the custodial job, I attended a graduation party for one of my classmates. At the party, she was talking about her summer job. I can’t remember what job she ended up taking, but what I clearly remember her saying is that she “had to turn down the job at the bank” to do this job. Before I knew what I was doing, I said “really, you had to give up a job at the bank? Do you know if they are still looking for someone?” She said she was pretty sure they still needed someone, so I asked her if I could get the phone number for the manager.
The next Monday during my morning break I found a pay phone and called the bank manager. I told him I would be happy to be considered for the job that my classmate had to turn down. Two days later, I clocked out wearing a skirt and blouse prepared to interview for the bank job, which I was offered and began the next week. I remember my custodial co-workers feeling very happy for me. They took me to lunch and wished me well. I simply wished for them to find happiness in their work.
Small Town Leadership lesson: Striving to be happy at work is something we should all do – and we each play a part in making this happen. After one week with a disengaged team, I knew I had to remove myself from the situation. In my case, I had a lucky break. In situations where you can’t simply walk away from your job, it’s important to uncover ways to appreciate your work and life. Think about the team you lead or the team you are on. If an 18 year old can walk in and sense disengagement and discontent after one day on the job, there is likely work to be done to improve the situation.
That moment also shifted the way I listen to others, which is a key component to successful networking. I tell this story when I do networking seminars because this is how lucky breaks happen. Right place, right time, with the right action taken. I can’t imagine finishing the summer on the custodial crew, and deep down, I know that I was supposed to have that conversation with my classmate. I certainly didn’t go to the graduation party thinking it would lead to a different job, but if I hadn’t asked questions and been bold about my actions, I would be telling a different story today.