When Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher received the 2013 Teen Choice Award last August, he delivered a rousing speech that emphasized the value of hard work. “I never had a job in my life that I was better than; I was just lucky to have a job,” Kutcher told his teen audience.
At age 13 he was hauling shingles up to the roof with his father. Before becoming an actor he also washed dishes in a restaurant, worked in a grocery store deli and swept factory floors. “Every job I had was a stepping-stone to my next job,” Kutcher said. “Opportunities look a lot like work.”
We polled a number of industry reps and sales experts about the impact of their first jobs on their eventual careers. Some called those early jobs “life-changing,” and some said these jobs had the unexpected effect of pointing them in the direction of their ultimate career. Many connect who they are in the business world today with the lessons learned way back then. Here are a few of them.
COMMITMENT AND PRIDE
Nicole McNamee, director of new business development at POP Solutions Group (asi/359180), had no idea that her first job as mascot for the University of Tennessee was also her first sales job. “I didn’t realize at the time that I was selling, but I was – I was selling cheers and getting people excited about the team,” she says.
The commitment to being Smokey, the Bluetick Hound that is the college mascot, was more than McNamee bargained for. The costume and head were heavy, the cheerleading routines physically demanding and she spent 40 hours a week in practice or at games. However, turns out Smokey the hound got a full ride – tuition was free.
Serving as the team mascot taught McNamee a lot about scheduling her time. “I couldn’t make mistakes; the kids would be upset if Smokey wasn’t there,” she says. “Also, if I missed practice it would show. I wouldn’t be able to follow the cheerleaders’ routines, which taught me discipline early.”
Being Smokey opened doors for McNamee. “I believe I got my first job out of college, health-care consulting at Price Waterhouse, because I was the mascot,” she says. Her interviewer was a huge Alabama fan who thought it would be funny to have a Tennessee mascot on his team.
After her interview, perhaps in a hint of things to come, McNamee sent the interviewer a Rocky Top button and other Tennessee promotional items as a thank-you.
She often thinks back to her Smokey days, and today she feels like a cheerleader for her POP Solutions team. “After ASI Orlando, I was so excited, showing pictures and telling everyone about the show, that one of the newer sales reps said she could tell I really loved my job,” McNamee say.
TOP TIP: BE A JOINER. McNamee urges students to join a lot of organizations, particularly those that interest them. “You meet more people, expand your knowledge base and develop leadership capacity,” she says.
TEAMWORK AND RESPECT
Kevin Scharnek, president of 14 West (asi/197092), stumbled upon a career in advertising specialties while he was a student at University of Wisconsin, Madison. His fraternity brother had a stand selling hats and T-shirts at Wisconsin Badger home games.
“One night we sat on the bar in the basement of the frat, and Bob said he needed someone to work the stand at the next day’s game,” he says. “He was paying $100, which was four weeks of beer money, so I said I’d do it.
“I didn’t even know promotional products existed before this,” says Scharnek, who enjoyed the experience so much he started his own company at college selling party favors to fraternities and sororities. When his father heard what he was doing, he suggested his son reach out to a close family friend that was a distributor in the industry.
That friend, industry veteran Frank Millonzi, hired him right out of college, and Scharnek is forever grateful for the opportunity. “So much of what I do today is because of Frank – I truly attribute my success to him,” he says. “Frank has forgotten more about this industry than I will ever know.”
Among the many lessons he learned from Millonzi: Always treat the gatekeeper with an enormous amount of respect. They will decide whether you get in the door. His mentor also pointed out that sometimes the gatekeeper ends up in influential positions within the company, which Scharnek has seen happen over the years. It was Millonzi’s idea to present the receptionists, which were usually women back then, with logoed nail buffers to help smooth the path to an appointment.
Millonzi also taught Scharnek how to use good suppliers to his advantage by taking them on joint calls for important opportunities. “Having that level of product-line expertise elevated our position on calls,” he says.
Most important lesson learned? “Be nice to everyone – you never know where you, or they, will end up,” he says. “I have guys I’ve called on for 15-plus years, and now some of them are vice presidents of marketing in billion-dollar companies. You have to assume you’re in this for the long haul.
TOP TIP: COME IN EARLY: “Come in early, even 15 minutes before, and leave after they leave,” says Scharnek. “That stands out to managers and owners, and you will climb the corporate ladder more quickly. Lots of people take the path of least resistance,” but he urges taking on challenging responsibilities and opportunities.
CONFIDENCE AND EMPATHY
Jordy Gamson, chief executive officer of Icebox (asi/229395), wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do when he graduated college with a degree in history. He thought about going to law school and becoming a lawyer for his dad’s scrap-metal company, but his dad sold the company while he was still an undergraduate and he was forced to reconsider his options.
When he was hired as an assistant warehouse manager by a scrap-metal company, “I was the highest-educated employee in the warehouse by far,” he says. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed, so I wore a suit and tie to work every day.”
As a result, he soon caught the eye of the firm’s executives and was promoted quickly, moving up to buyer of scrap and then plant manager. “I opened a facility for them, and did hiring and training. Basically, it was my de facto MBA,” he says.
It may not have been his dream job, but it helped him develop confidence and fostered his entrepreneurial spirit. Juxtaposing that confidence with humility, Gamson explains why, even though owning your own company may be your number-one goal, it can be beneficial to work for someone else first.
“People who come right out of school and work for themselves miss what it’s like to fear for their job,” he says. “That’s an important lesson in humility. You need that feeling to understand what it takes to become a good boss,” he adds.
TOP TIP: WORK FOR SOMEONE ELSE: Having a boss other than yourself can provide powerful lessons in humility and can be a great motivator on what to do and what not to do on your ultimate career path, says Gamson.
SELF-SUFFICIENCY AND CREATIVITY
On the flipside of that scenario, Jamie Shanks, managing partner of Sales for Life, is all for running your own business from the start if you can. He began a lawn-mowing service as a teen.
He was forced to start his own business, you could say, but grew to love the idea. It began after he flipped his dad’s jeep. Instead of getting angry, his father came home with a 1978 pickup truck with a lawnmower and weed whacker in the back and told him, ‘You’re going to cut grass.”
Shanks went door to door and landed a bunch of accounts by offering a better rate than his competitors. Then he was mowing, all day, every day, to keep up with his business.
“My ‘eureka’ moment was when I got my younger brother, who would do anything for a bag of chips, to work for me,” he says. “I’d pay him $10 and keep $15 on each job. This was my first introduction to profit margins.”
His business grew, and he bought additional equipment and hired his friends to work for him. When his dad came home to find him lying by the pool one day, he was puzzled. “But I had guys cutting for me,” he says. “I’m taking $15, they’re taking $10. I was still making money. I figured it out and my Dad realized I got it.”
The lessons Shanks learned served him well for his eventual career in social selling. “My mom told me, if you do a great job, two people will hear of it, but if you do a terrible job, eight people will hear of it,” he says.
“My first job taught me so much about myself,” he says. “I want to control my own destiny, my wages, hours and the clients I take on.”
Has he thanked his dad for his early introduction to entrepreneurship? “One thousand times,” he says.
TOP TIP: CREATE YOUR OWN JOB: “Your vocation can be your passion,” Shanks says. “It doesn’t have to be for the money. If you love what you do, the money will come.”
HUMILITY AND GRACE
As a teen, Quintain Marketing (asi/303131) CEO Kathleen Booth worked as a short-order cook at a busy local neighborhood restaurant. Among the top lessons she learned were responsibility, to be prepared and to take criticism and move on, as well as fundamental skills on working with and for other people.
“I learned how much preparation goes into what seems like a simple job,” says Booth, who had to prep food, wash dishes and clean the kitchen. She learned to multitask, as the pace was fast, people wanted their food quickly and there were many moving parts.
“I had to learn grace under pressure,” she says, explaining that she once sent a pizza out to a customer topped with cardboard circles, rather than pepperoni. In that instance, she learned from the owner who stayed calm and gave the customer a free pizza.
“Mistakes happen, don’t dwell on them,” she says. “You just need to fix it quickly and make it right for the customer.”
She got her hands dirty, literally, as she frequently had to reach in and unclog the sink. “I was the low man on the totem pole.” While some people may think they are above the menial jobs, looking at the business from everyone’s perspective and all positions can help boost your own bottom line.
As a business owner, Booth now has a better appreciation for the restaurant owner who hired her so long ago and who worked nights and weekends trying to keep work-life balanced and stay successful.
TOP TIP: NO JOB TOO MENIAL. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty or try a few different jobs at your company from time to time. This will give you insights as to how the rest of your team is vital to your success and also into your customer’s experience.
KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE
Jill Konrath, sales strategist and author of SNAP Selling, taught home economics after college, but says she was never happy as a teacher. “People said teaching got easier over time, but I never got happier,” she says.
She taught for over four years, keeping her eye out for a different opportunity. When she couldn’t find an alternate job that suited her, she decided to create her own company. She recruited two friends and presented an idea to a potential investor. He liked the idea, but asked who would be the salesperson.
“Sales was never something I envisioned doing,” says Konrath, but since it was her “baby” she went on a mission to get a job in sales and get some experience. She got hired by Xerox and never looked back. As her career in sales heated up, she realized that leading a classroom helped her be a better salesperson.
How so? Teachers have to actively work at engaging students, even when school was not their top priority, and Konrath learned her experience helped her engage prospective clients as well. “I could ask stimulating and provocative questions, which is so important in sales,” she says.
Her expertise in creating lesson plans also served her well when planning sales meetings. “I didn’t just go in and wing it,” she says. “I went into meetings with a strategic plan.”
She also understood how people learn, which helped her to build programs to move and educate them. Konrath eventually created her own training program to teach others how to sell.
“I thought I hated teaching, but once I got into sales I realized that teaching was what I was doing,” she says. “Just because a particular job doesn’t suit you, doesn’t mean you’re not learning valuable skills and lessons.”
TOP TIP: LEARN FROM IT. “Everything is a step towards your future success,” says Konrath. View every job as a learning experience that will increase your market value, portfolio and skill set.