A Tale of Two Managers

My very first paying job – complete with actual paychecks as opposed to babysitting money – was at a local bagel shop. I was in high school, and earned $4.50 hour. This was twenty-five cents more than minimum wage, and I was thrilled.

My job mostly entailed working at the counter, taking orders, prepping and serving food, and working the cash register. When it was slow, I would clean anything I could find, including the bathrooms. When I was really bored, I would restock any available thing that needed restocking, like the napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers. I don’t like to be bored, so I tried to always keep moving.

There were two managers who typically worked when I did. One of them, Bob, was the man who hired me. He was my first impression of what a manager in a professional situation could be. Unfortunately, that impression was a bad one. This guy was lazy. I don’t think I ever saw him do any actual work. He would come in, sit in the manager’s office, and talk on the phone to his girlfriend the entire time, while the rest of us hustled out front.

Except…I soon realized that I was the only one hustling. If Bob was there, he certainly wasn’t paying attention or holding anyone accountable for doing their jobs, so my coworkers would slack off, too.

Sometimes, I got lucky and Patty was the manager. It was impossible to outwork this woman. She was a force. She would come into that shop and not stop moving the entire time. She didn’t just work the counter and keep things moving up front; she made sure to get the back in order, too. Some nights, this meant she wanted to deep clean the kitchen floors. My coworkers hated this, because it not only kept them there an extra hour, it kept them there to clean. Patty did not care. It was as if she was oblivious to the staff eye-rolling and huffing and puffing. She simply expected them to do their jobs.

When it was floor-cleaning time, we would first get everything off the floor that couldn’t get wet. Then, we would flood the kitchen with the hose. Water would get in every corner and crevasse that regular sweeping and mopping couldn’t touch. After that, took the real work: we each grabbed a mop and scrubbed and washed and wrung out and scrubbed and washed again. If you’ve ever done any type of industrial cleaning, you know that those mops were heavy. This was hard work. I loved it.

That first employment experience taught me a lot. I learned what it means to have a real work ethic, and what it looks like when you don’t. More than that, I saw the impact that one’s own work ethic could quickly have to those around you, especially if those people are subordinates.

I also learned to pay attention. At every job I have had since, I quietly look around. I seek out qualities in managers that motivate and inspire, and those that depress and demoralize. Over time, I hone my own approach at being both manager and managed, trying to be true to my own work ethic, and to practice what I have learned.

My Story

Just over ten years ago, I made a decision.

I had been working at my job, writing direct mail fundraising letters for nonprofit organizations, for five years, and I was bored. Not of the work itself – I loved the writing. I loved telling stories, finding the meaning behind the ask, and making connections between organization and donor. I especially loved putting pen to paper, which I did, literally. I would frequently gather up my research materials, a fresh notepad and my favorite pen, and head to the conference room or the kitchen or even a bench outside to scratch away at some ideas that I carefully shaped into stories that become fundraising appeals.

Eventually, though, I wondered what else there was out there for me to do. I had expanded my role quite a bit from copywriter and editor, to freelance coordinator, to ad hoc public relations representative for my agency. I wrote articles for publication, edited fundraising letters that come in from freelancers, and carefully selected new freelancers to test on different appeals. But, after several years of similar mail plans, of membership packages, and of checking calendar proofs, I was ready for something more.

I took that hunger and curiosity and applied to graduate school. I only applied to two programs: an MFA and a PhD. The MFA program turned me down. The PhD program welcomed me in. Suddenly, I knew what I would be doing with my time for the next five to ten years.

My agency graciously allowed me to shift from full time to part time hours while I gave graduate school a try. That lasted for a time, but the call to explore new options was strong. I eventually left the agency that had been my professional home for five years and jumped in feet first to a new challenge: teaching.

Let me tell you something: teaching is far more difficult a profession than you think it is. My first teaching job was with a community college where I was handed the textbooks, a sample syllabus, and my schedule, and told “Welcome! We can’t pay you much, but we’re glad you’re here.”

That was the extent of my training. I walked into class the first day absolutely terrified. Somehow, I found my way. I even managed to have fun. Hopefully, I taught my students something. In time, I learned how to be a better teacher, but those first few classes, wow. Talk about a learning experience. That job was easily the toughest – yet most rewarding – job I have ever had in my life. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to do it.

Because I had some flexibility in my schedule, I began volunteering at the local zoo. Not too long after that, an opportunity opened up to teach at a different zoo, marrying my teaching experience with my volunteer experience into one very awesome yet spectacularly low-paying experience. I stayed at that zoo for more than seven years, advancing over time into positions with greater levels of responsibility.

The call to teach writing beckoned, though, and, quite frankly, so did the necessity of earning a better living. I began teaching for an online university while working at the zoo full time. I did this for two years. Once I knew it was time to move on from the zoo, I began applying for other positions, and was offered one in Miami that was very tempting. I knew, though, that the move was not the right one, for a variety of reasons. I also knew that, moving forward, I was only going to apply for local jobs that did not involve a move, with one exception: if the university where I taught had an opening for a full time position, I would apply.

Within three months of making that decision, a full time position did become available. I applied in September, gave notice to the zoo in October, started my new position remotely in November, and moved to a new state in December. It has now been two years, and I still sometimes look around, shake my head, and ask myself: how did I get here?

Over time, I will expand on this story a bit. I will share more about the different pieces of what led me from a pathway to a traditional academic career to a very different life at a zoo and then back to academia, but still in a somewhat non-traditional fashion.

Throughout the years, though, and throughout the experiences, the constants for me have been: education, both formal and informal; love of learning; love of nature and how it ties into our lives; travel experiences and how they foster a great love of global community; nonprofit missions, and their connection to direct mail; community and customer service; and putting pen to paper to tell a story. These are the themes I will explore in this blog moving forward. I hope you will join me.