A positive attitude will overcome many barriers. So will a willingness to get your hands dirty. The earlier this lesson is learnt the better. I learnt it at my first job in 1982.
I worked in a paint factory. For its time the factory was modern and well-maintained. However, the occupational health and safety standards were basic and would not be acceptable today. My job involved lugging 44 gallon drums to a solvent filling station; donning a safety mask and gloves; and then filling the drums with a pipe/hosing apparatus that resembled a garden hose. Once I filled a drum I manhandled it out of the way and began filling a new one. When 16 drums were filled I put each individual drum on a heavy duty trolley and wheeled it to the despatch area (approximately 60 metres away) and hand-loaded a waiting truck. I loaded approximately 5 trucks every day.
At the end of each day I swept the factory floor and cleaned the toilets. I started work at 6.30am and finished at 3pm. The factory was a 40 minutes drive from my home. I did this job for three months at a stretch during university breaks. I was 18 years old.
Strangely, I enjoyed it. I was the only university student working there. The rest of the employees were older guys supporting families, most of who had worked there for many years. They ignored me for the first month other than getting me to do the worst jobs in the factory. Jobs they didn’t want to do themselves. Some of them were terrible.
I did them all as fast and as well as I could. I also smiled a lot. I regularly asked if I could help out and do more. I didn’t care what the job was – it made no difference to me. It was all dirty, hard, physical work. I went home exhausted each night.
After a month the attitude of the other factory workers began to change. They started eating lunch with me and sharing stories about their lives. They forgot that I was a university student doing a holiday job. I forgot it too. I had earned their respect because I had worked hard and hadn’t complained. The work in the next two months was no easier however I had “earned my stripes” and was now considered part of the team. My enjoyment factor sky-rocketed as a result.
Experiences like these shape how you conduct yourself in business. The job was tough but I made the most of it. Most jobs have good and bad parts. Some parts are enjoyable and others aren’t. This doesn’t matter. Someone has to do the work, whether it is good or bad.
When I was running companies it made no difference to me whether I had to take the garbage out or clinch a multi-million dollar deal. I was part of the team and chose to lead by example. I understood early on that the best example is set by the people who will do the tough tasks without complaint and then ask for more. These people build trust within their teams and engender loyalty. When times are tough they are able to immediately marshal their teams and overcome the immediate challenge.
Tough doesn’t equal bad, necessarily. During the tough times you can actually have the time of your life. One time three of us fitted out six temporary retail stores in ten days. I can still see us lying on the floor of the last shop, eating pizza, drinking beer and laughing while replaying the events of the past few days. We were exhausted, happy and proud of what we had just done.
Sometimes there is no choice but to dig deep to get something done. These are pivotal moments. It is during these times that the true identity of a business is forged. Great businesses do what they have to do, when they have to do it. The more times they do it, the more it becomes part of their DNA. When new people come into a business they can see and feel this attitude and it will influence how they behave and perform, hopefully positively.
I love the hard times. It’s never better than to be backed into a corner and have to fight your way out. In these situations, you learn a lot about yourself and your team. You also create the legends that you’ll remember long into your old age.