My first paid job was delivering newspapers. Six days a week for three years or so I slung about a hundred papers from one end of Sedro-Wooley, Washington’s Jameson Street to the other. That was thirteen blocks of out-and-back or zig-zag, depending on whether I wanted to end up back at home or playing Zaxxon at the corner store.
It wasn’t a bad gig really. I could set my own pace as long as I delivered on time and the base pay was reliable and sufficient to keep me flush in quarters and comic books. Like so many things we experience during our formative years, being a paperboy taught me several lessons about leadership and business. Here are three that contributed directly to any success I’ve enjoyed along the way and continue to influence my leadership style to this day.
We cannot dodge the rain
On foot or pedaling a bicycle, delivering newspapers in the Northwest meant getting wet. Whether mist, sprinkle, drizzle, shower, cloudburst, or deluge, some form of moisture was bound to fall along the way. Early on I tried two strategies to address this challenge: hurry and delay.
Whether I was out for 45 minutes or an hour, I ended up just as wet. If anything, hurrying merely ensured I’d work up a sweat and also get soaked from the inside out. Worse yet, rushing increased the chances I would inadvertently wade through a puddle or skip a house and have to circle back.
Hunkering down and waiting for the rain to pass didn’t work either. It forced me to rush to meet my delivery deadline — and odds were high I’d still get caught in a squall.
My attempts to avoid or delay problems merely postponed them — and all too often compounded them.
This taught me I cannot dodge the rain, and also I can only get so wet.
Sticking to goals, having a good plan, and focused on the customer is the best way to ensure on-time delivery of quality products and services.
Put the paper in the tube
The going rate for a monthly subscription to the Skagit Valley Herald in my day was $5.75. My customers would often pay with a ten dollar bill and tell me to keep the change. It wasn’t a wealthy neighborhood and I often wondered why those high tippers were willing to pay me almost double the going rate. One day I worked up the nerve to ask.
The answer surprised me.
“Because,” the customer said, “you always put the paper in the tube.”
I had always figured putting the paper where my customers wanted it was my job — and a relatively simple one at that.
Apparently that was an uncommon approach to newspaper delivery.
This taught me that providing a customer with exactly the service they want can exceed their expectations.
Listen to more than words
When customers would travel for work or go on vacation, they would usually suspend their subscription or ask me to hold their papers for a time. But sometimes they’d forget, or perhaps have to leave town unexpectedly and had other things on their mind. When that happened, the papers would pile up.
It would have been simple enough to just keep cramming them into the tube. After all, my job was just to deliver them. But after about three days, I’d take the papers back and drop a note into their mailbox to say I hoped they were doing ok and that I was holding their papers for when they return.
I never had anyone complain about that. Usually they’d say thank you — and pay me with a ten dollar bill.
This taught me to listen even when words aren’t used to communicate. To pay attention to what a client needs, even if for some reason they don’t (or can’t) articulate them.
We cannot dodge the rain; put the paper in the tube; listen to more than words.
I’ve had a lot of jobs since my days slinging papers: bindery worker, dishwasher, restaurant host, waiter, bank teller, grocery store manager, university resident hall advisor, then U.S. Marine and today, owner of a leadership coaching and consulting business.
These three simple lessons served me well in each.
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Cliff holds a PhD in organization and management with a specialization in leadership. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he completed operational deployments to Fallujah, Iraq and Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan. He has led multi-national and inter-agency teams including approximately one year on loan from the Corps as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He also directly advised the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on public and media engagement regarding national security matters for two years as Special Assistant for Public Communication. Today he puts that experience to work helping people become the kind of leaders they would want to follow.