Last month, my oldest daughter Alya began working at her new summer job and now that she’s worked for two different companies over the past two summer periods, it’s been interesting to hear her observations about the differences in how her bosses manage their employees.
These conversations with my daughter about her work has lead to recollections of my summer job experiences, and how one in particular has helped to shape my understandings of leadership and empowering employees.
When I was 18 years old, my uncle got me a job working in the warehouse of a pharmaceutical dispensary near his house in the Toronto suburbs. I was excited and nervous about taking on the job; excited because the pay was really good, but nervous because it meant giving up spending any time with my friends back in Montreal.
My boss, Mr. Hainsworth – the owner of this and another pharmaceutical dispensary in Southern Ontario – was what many people would call a straight shooter; you always knew where you stood with him so if he had a problem with something you did, he’d be sure to let you know.
For the first weeks on the job, I have to admit that being a teenager, I was a bit intimidated by his gruff exterior, even though many of his employees reassured me that he’s actually the sweetest man you’d ever know.
My job was pretty straightforward – I worked for the warehouse supervisor making sure the dispensary shelves were properly stocked, putting in orders to resupply our drug inventory, and basically managing the warehouse on the supervisor’s days off and when he took his summer vacation break.
The hardest part of the job was that the warehouse was located in the windowless basement of the medical office building, which is why I welcomed any chance to go upstairs to the dispensary in order to catch a glimpse of the summer blue sky.
On one of the warehouse supervisor’s days off, I decided to review our current inventory against upcoming renewal orders and I found that we had on our shelves a box full of medication that had expired a month ago. Given the large quantity of prescription vials, I decided to go see Mr. Hainsworth to ask him how do I go about disposing the expired medication.
After I explained the situation, Mr. Hainsworth paused from looking at his computer screen and looked at me. Instead of answering my question, he asked me ‘why did we order so much of this drug if it’s going to sit on our shelves to expire?’
I looked at Mr. Hainsworth with what I’m sure was a confused look – after all, I had just started working there, so how I was supposed to know why they ordered so much of this medication before I started working there? So all I could tell him as a reply was ‘I don’t know’.
Clearly, that wasn’t the answer Mr. Hainsworth was looking for as he said in a more gruff voice ‘Tanveer, I need you to find out why this medication was left to expire on your shelf downstairs’. At that moment, I felt as though I was being reprimanded by the school principal for something I didn’t even do.
At the same time, though, I realized that I wanted to make a good impression with Mr. Hainsworth, which is no doubt why I was probably expecting praise for my initiative in discovering this issue, as opposed to disappointment in my lack of an answer to his question.
So I went back downstairs to search through the purchase order forms to learn more about this drug and then went around asking the various technicians if they knew something about this particular drug order. Sure enough, one of the pharmacy technicians was able to shed some light on this.
As it turned out, one of the doctors in the medical building had been prescribing large quantities of this drug to the point that we were having a hard time keeping it in supply. So, the warehouse supervisor had decided to order a surplus to ensure that we always had it in stock. Then for some reason, the doctor stopped prescribing this drug to his patients and so this inventory just sat unused for the past year or so.
Having found the answer, I went back to Mr. Hainsworth and informed him about what I had found out about this drug purchase. He continued to look at his computer screen while I explained to him what happened and when I was done, he gave me a quick nod and told me what paperwork I needed to fill out to begin the disposal process.
And then he added ‘Tanveer, when you see something’s wrong, don’t just try to fix it. Find out why it happened in the first place so we don’t do it again in the future. Got it?’. He then gave me a quick smile and said ‘Good catch. Keep it up’.
In that small exchange with Mr. Hainsworth, something inside me just clicked. While I felt that sense of elation and pride that one naturally feels when your boss praises your work, I also felt this internal drive to go and do more. After hearing what Mr. Hainsworth had to say, I felt like I was doing more than simply filling in for someone on vacation – I felt like I personally had something to contribute; that I could make a difference in helping how this company did things.
From that point on, I looked for other ways to help my co-workers and the company, whether it was finding areas where we could reduce costs or different ways that I could help support the pharmaceutical technicians with their work processing orders and the like.
Soon, Mr. Hainsworth started coming to me with various new projects to do – from reconfiguring the over-the-counter (OTC) shelves to maximize turnover sales, to updating the various computer terminals to harmonize workstation operations. With each project, I always kept in mind what Mr. Hainsworth had told me in those first few weeks on the job.
I didn’t fully appreciate it at that time, but looking back I realized that working for Mr. Hainsworth helped to me to learn at a young age a very important truth about how to approach the work you do:
Don’t limit yourself to answering how. Look for the answer that will help you to understand why [Share on Twitter].
It was the first time that I worked for a leader who didn’t want me to limit what I could contribute based on my role or title in that company. Instead, he encouraged me to invest myself in the overall purpose behind why we do what we do; of finding ways to do and make things better by looking for opportunities where I could make a difference.
It was the first time I ever felt like the work I did wasn’t simply a job because I could see that what I could offer mattered. And that sense of value and purpose behind what I did in that summer job fuelled my motivation to not only give my best to the work I did, but it also made me look forward to going to work each and every day. In fact, I remember how happy I was on Sunday nights knowing I was starting a new work week the next day.
Now, remember we’re talking about an 18-year old teenager whose job meant spending most of the summer in a windowless basement managing and tracking pharmaceutical inventory and purchase orders.
Mr. Hainsworth clearly understood that to get employees engaged in the work they do doesn’t involve offering them glamourous or exciting work, but showing them that what they do matters; that people notice and care about what you’re going to do for them and for the company.
Through his leadership, he demonstrated that encouraging employees to question why opens the door to learning how we can do and be better [Share on Twitter].
Indeed, every time I finished one of the projects he assigned me on top of my regular workload, I found myself getting hungrier to learn more, to push myself further to see what I could do to help make this company more successful or at least, help them to save more money.
It’s no surprise why so many of his employees had been working for his company for years, even decades, with some technicians having had their start there as summer interns who after completing their studies went on to become full-time employees.
That kind of loyalty and dedication was not simply because Mr. Hainsworth was a generous boss with both pay and vacation time. Rather, it was due to his commitment to empowering his employees to succeed because he valued them and the contributions they could make to his company.
Working for Mr. Hainsworth taught me an invaluable lesson on how to not only inspire loyalty, but to bring out the best in those you lead:
When we expect and empower our employees to do their best, we inspire them to achieve greatness [Share on Twitter].
Mr. Hainsworth passed away a few years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the summer I spent working for him and especially the lessons he taught me in my teenage years of how to not only give your best, but how to continually strive towards becoming your best.
It’s my hope that each of my daughters will have the opportunity to work for a leader who inspires and instills in them these important ideas about what they can do and who they can become.
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