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4 Lessons Every Executive Can Learn from Hourly Workers

This tech exec returned to hourly shift work, as a waitress and bartender. En route, she rediscovered the right way to pour a beer.
4 Lessons Every Executive Can Learn from Hourly Workers
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My technology career began at an unconventional incubator -- the Brewhouse Grill in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Fresh out of college, I worked there as a waitress. And while that profession may seem far removed from my present career as a tech executive, I consistently draw upon the experiences and lessons of that first job.

Related: How Going 'Undercover' Made Me a Better Boss

In fact, I'm now chief operating executive of Snagajob, the nation's largest marketplace connecting hourly workers and employers in the service industry. And, recently, in honor of Employee Appreciation Day, we strove to expand our company leadership’s internal and professional boundaries by having these leaders walk in the shoes of our customers for a day.

That's right: Our executive team literally stepped out of our executive roles and into the hourly workforce outside our company (a different spin from Undercover Boss). In our ongoing effort to build meaningful experiences for hourly employees by understanding our customers, we took on hourly shifts right alongside them. Each of us chose a local employer that most resembled the first job each of us had had in order to reconnect -- and in some cases relearn -- a position that shaped us as people. 

That's how our CEO flipped burgers at a local Five Guys.  I, meanwhile, joined the team at the restaurant/pub chain The Greene Turtle as a bartender and server. I was curious to see if I still had what it takes to keep up with the fast-paced world of restaurant work, and how my experience as a technology executive might help me rise to that challenge.

Instead, I found it was the other way around: Over the course of my shift, I learned exactly how being an hourly worker and waitress prepared me to be a successful product manager and company leader. Here are four key lessons every executive can learn from hourly work and take back to his or her corner office. 

1. Get into your customer’s head -- and shoes.

I walked into The Greene Turtle a little intimidated by what looked like a pretty packed house, only to learn from my new co-workers that this was nothing compared to when sports events are on. During my shift, I experienced what motivates, frustrates and inspires our core customer, the hourly worker.

My favorite part was getting to connect with each employee and learn about who they were -- a full-time student working to complete his business degree, and a mother working to support her 5-year-old daughter. Through their stories, I was able to see firsthand how these people approached their hourly job, what they got from the experience and how they handled challenges. This learning reinforced my own day-to-day mission: to create seamless technology that puts people into the right-fit positions so they can maximize their potential and lead more fulfilling lives.

Related: How 'Undercover Boss' Taught Me to Hire the Right People and Continue to Nurture Them

I spend a lot of time thinking about the needs and behaviors of our customers -- the hourly workers and employers who use our software and online platforms. But I rarely have the chance to live their experience, and I was reminded just how important this kind of regular connection is with our customers.

2. Hospitality is important in all aspects of business.

While the "hospitality" industry is a clearly defined sector, my shift at The Greene Turtle illustrated how hospitality underlines all industries. The staff were generous with their time and expertise, training and guiding me through every step of my hourly shift. Even as the line at the bar stretched longer and the customers’ demands grew louder, my crew helped keep me calm under the pressure.

This particular team had a strong rapport with one another, and their warm, welcoming attitude radiated in their interactions both with each other and with their customers -- even the demanding ones. Every minute, each team member skillfully observed the restaurant to see if a customer or fellow worker might need special attention -- a top hospitality sector skill which optimizes the dining experience for customers, creates a safer environment for workers and vastly improves efficiency.

The conscientious care that The Greene Turtle staff brought to their jobs was incredibly valuable -- and transferable -- to any sector and across business settings. I returned to my office the next day vowing to bring that same focus on hospitality into my own workplace. Do my product team members have everything they need to succeed? Am I doing everything I can to show my appreciation for my employees, both individually and as a team? Do I offer enough personal training and guidance?

3. Hourly work is hard work.

Hourly work, whether it involves pouring beers as a bartender or driving for Lyft, takes concentration, dedication and skill. I was embarrassed to discover on my shift that, despite my past experience as a waitress, I struggled to properly pour a beer.  As my overly-foamed pint illustrated, restaurant work requires intense concentration, attention to detail and patience.

The hundreds of tasks I saw hourly workers perform simultaneously renewed my appreciation for the collaborative multitasking required of us in all of our jobs. Serving in a restaurant is at its core a human interaction, and the last thing we want technology to do is get in the way of people connecting with one other. Back in my own office, I thought about how I could better guide and encourage collaboration among our engineers and designers as they create new features and products that enhance and simplify our customers’ lives.

4. Teamwork is everything.

In an hourly-shift setting, there is an art to working "on the floor" with other team members -- sensing what they need, helping them manage responsibilities and moving out of the way when needed. When orders were ready for two of my tables at the same time, a co-worker kindly stepped in to help carry the food so that all of the guests were served quickly. 

No matter what you do for a living, we all do our best work when we are part of a team. Whether your particular team is composed of a waitress and a bartender, or an engineer and a product manager, people who work gracefully together will always bring the best results. This lesson transcends industries and positions, and applies to everyone from entry-level to CEO.

Related: 6 Things Effective Leaders Should Do to Inspire Their Teams

My journey from the boardroom to the bar and back was incredibly rewarding, thought-provoking and fun. I hope my experience encourages you to take a moment to appreciate everything that hourly workers do to help make your days (or nights) a little better. Moreover, in our roles as managers, executives and team leaders, let’s recommit to understanding our customers, building meaningful experiences for them and remembering to ask ourselves: What does it feel like to spend a day in our customers' shoes?

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