Rising to the top of your field takes perseverance, talent and tenacity. It also often starts in inauspicious circumstances. This issue, Atlantic Business Magazine talks to some of the region’s most respected executives about their worst jobs and asked how it helped them climb to the top.
Robert Zed, president of Zed Events, says his worst grunt job was strolling beaches and parks in Saint John. Before you roll your eyes, consider that he was working for the city and his task was to pick up cigarette butts, beer cans and all the unprintable detritus you might expect to find if you start digging under public bushes.
“It was gross. It was pretty humbling,” he says. “As I sit here and think about it, it really was a miserable job. My highlight was remembering that we found the best hiding places in those jobs.”
After one summer working for the man, Zed realized he wanted to be the man.
He discovered that the government issued grants for students interested in starting their own summer job. Zed created Operation Diamond, a program helping senior citizens. “I was project manager and had 10 students working for me… And I had a car for the summer. I was King Shit,” he laughs.
Another summer grant led to SunBumz beach clothes, which Zed elegantly models in a vintage photo he provided to ABM.
Zed’s summer grant jobs eventually led him to health care, where he spent much of his career before starting Zed Events. “What does stay with you is your leadership ability, your determination and your energy and desire to do better,” he says. “Focus on the prize – those things don’t change, they’re in your DNA. You’re either an entrepreneur, or you’re not.”
Steven Burns is CEO of Bulletproof Solutions, a leading N.B. technology firm. He says his worst grunt job was planting trees for JD Irving over a long, hot New Brunswick summer.
“If you want a lesson in patience and hard work, look no further,” he says. “The idea of getting paid by the tree and tramping through clear cuts in the middle of nowhere, while trying to fight off giant mosquitoes you’d think hadn’t seen human life since they existed – nasty all the way around.”
But it also led to an early best job – a summer research project for Forestry Canada studying the health of trees and plants. His team’s primary task was to insert meters that would measure the earth’s composition, but that meant long, sweaty days digging holes.
“It took two of us all day to dig that first hole and we were not happy thinking that we had 20 or more still to dig,” Burns says.
And thus a leader was born. “Back at the camp that night, I got to thinking of how we could do this differently. There had to be a better, faster and cheaper way,” he recalls.
“I approached our boss and said, ‘Why don’t we rent a small backhoe?’”
The nascent leader got his way and the team dug all of the holes in one day. As CEO of Bulletproof Solutions, he is rarely called on to dig a better hole, but he is constantly looking for ways to do things better – while keeping an ear open for bright ideas from fresh faces.
Rob Steele, CEO of Newfoundland Capital Corporation, audibly shudders when asked about his worst grunt jobs. “I remember them all,” he says. After a few minutes probing those dark memories, he settles on a summer job he had at Notre Dame Provincial Park.
“They were fairly humbling jobs. I was painting picnic tables, selling park passes and cleaning outhouses,” he says.
Steele admits that was a low point – especially when he ran into friends exiting the john as he was entering it. “My friends would come there on the weekends and camp. Geez, I’d be working and going in the next morning with the slop bucket. It was pretty humbling,” he recalls.
He did it for three summers. It was a tough decision each day to go to work and not join his partying friends. “But it was great to just have a job,” he says. “I was just so ecstatic to have a job. It wasn’t a lot of money, but to me then it was a lot of money. It was great to get a cheque.”
His career at the top of Newcap Radio, one of Canada’s leading radio broadcasters, has taken him far from the outhouse wilderness of Newfoundland, Former provincial park attendant Rob Steele agrees: “There’s nothing like cleaning outhouses to make you appreciate hard work.” but his love of a good paycheque has remained.
“Work is work, whether you’re doing arduous labour or executive work,” he says. “It’s good to work the spectrum so you can get a feel for what work is like at every level. It’s a different kind of stress. I understand the value of hard work.”
The clothes (work) horse
Nancy MacCready-Williams, CEO of Doctors Nova Scotia, spent her grunt days paying for university via life in the Sears Clearance Centre. “My job involved working in the children’s department keeping the shelves tidy. What that really meant was working my way up and down both sides of a long shelving unit, folding thousands and thousands of tiny little clothes, over and over again,” she says. ”By the time I worked my way down one side of the shelf, it would look like a bomb went off on the other side: Little clothes all over the place, including the floor! And so I’d start folding all over again.”
The job was high in stress, and rich in life lessons. MacCready-Williamssays it taught her the importance of patience and self control, as well as the helpful maxim: “No screaming aloud in any workplace.” She also learned that every job has its own source of pride. “Who knew that tiny little clothes, neatly folded, could be a thing of beauty?” she asks.
“This job gave me a view about workplace respect that I carry with me today. Every person, regardless of their job, is to be respected for the important role they play in an organization,” she says. “And those who touch the customer have the most important – albeit sometimes the most difficult – roles. They are your organization’s ambassadors.
Make sure they feel supported and appreciated for the important work they do.”
Ken LeBlanc remembers his grunt jobs with such fondness you wonder if he wishes he was still walking the streets of East Dieppe with a bag of Times and Transcripts slung over his shoulder. “It was a pretty prestigious job for a young fellow to have,” says the president of PropertyGuys.com.
He got the coveted route after a year-long mentorship with the previous paper boy and kept it for three years of steep hills, hot summers and frozen winters. “Growing up, we didn’t have a lot. If I wanted extra spending money, it was up to me to go out and get it. It taught me a lot of responsibility. It definitely taught me the value of a dollar,” he says.
LeBlanc also learned the importance of delivering on time, every day, and how that makes it easier to collect the money on payday. In the winter, he augmented his income by shoveling snow. “It really showed me I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he says.
He co-founded the PropertyGuys. com for-sale-by-owner real estate network while still in university and never looked back.
IN SUMMARY, a grueling grunt job makes the real world vividly clear for a young person setting out in life. The danger is not a horrible first job, but a comfortable one. Anything less than awful might just turn into a career.