I Was a Dishwasher — Now I'm a CEO. Here are 6 Ways the Roles Are More Alike Than You Would Think Day after day, I realize that I'm using the skills I learned there, applying the lessons I gleaned there and performing many of the same functions I undertook there. Just how are the roles similar?
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The day I turned 14 — the very first day I was eligible for employment in New York, where I grew up — I bounded out of bed to get my working papers. I was a go-getter even then, and I couldn't wait to start my first job as a dishwasher at a pizza joint that afternoon after school.
Young as I was, I thought wiping down tables and serving up slices constituted a "dream job" because I got to work with my best friend, Devon, and we ended up pretty much running the place with whichever cook was on duty. To this day, I credit Mr. Mike's Pizza in Lake Placid and owner David Nicola for planting my entrepreneurial roots, and I remain inspired by the story of Noma's head chef and co-founder Rene Redzepi for naming dishwasher Ali Sonko a partner of Copenhagen's internationally acclaimed Michelin-star restaurant in 2017. Perhaps if I had stayed on the track of dishwasher meets hostess and waitress at Mr. Mikes, this story may have had a different turn, as it did for Ali.
The story does twist and turn a bit, and Mr. Mikes is still a big part of our family, but now for me, I'm the CEO of my own PR firm — you'd think my days as a dishwasher were long over. But you'd think wrong. Day after day, I realize that I'm using the skills I learned there, applying the lessons I gleaned there, and performing many of the same functions I undertook there.
Just how are the roles similar? Here's how:
1. Listen to the stories all around you
People share their stories, histories, struggles, wins and random thoughts in a dish pit or the innards of a kitchen. And when you're in public relations, shared stories are the name of the game. So listen to them. Listen closely. Your staff and clients will tell you exactly who they are and what they need if you give them the platform to do so. Never get so big for your britches that you think people from all strata of society and walks of life don't have invaluable information to impart.
2. Take on the grunt work when needed
While it's true that C-suiters are not routinely called upon to get their hands dirty, they should nevertheless know how to and be willing to do the grunt work as the need arises. It shows your staff that you understand even the most menial parts of their jobs and that you don't think you're above them.
At 14, I scraped caked-on gunk off other people's plates. Close to 30 years later, I volunteer to take on some of the lowliest tasks in my company's workload when it frees my people to wholly focus on their assignments and empowers them to lead in their own areas of expertise.
3. Be the first to show up and the last to leave
My brother also came up in the restaurant industry, and he and I often talk about how "there's no locking up" until the counters are gleaming and the floors are spotless. You can't wave good night to your team while they're still hunkering in their cubicles without building resentment. You can't expect to win the race with a late start and an early finish. And you can't put in the part-time effort and expect full-time payouts.
I learned long ago not to overstep my team's 9-to-5 boundaries to avoid burnout, but I myself pick up calls round the clock and put no time clock on solving my client's problems. I'm at my desk at the crack of dawn and return there long after dusk, after tucking in the kids, so my business can remain my priority even while I'm raising a family, managing a household and cutting oranges for the soccer games. Have the most skin in the game of anyone around you, and you'll end up making that game your bitch!
4. If work is a survival tool, make it worthwhile
Most dishwashers and burger flippers aren't doing it for pocket money or career fulfillment — they're working those jobs to pay the rent. To put gas in the car. To feed their families. When your employees are working for you to live, to cover the mortgage, to pay the bills — not necessarily to get ahead or get promoted or get rich — you've got to do everything in your power to make them feel valued in your organization, an integral part of your mission and a prized presence on your team. Make the time they devote to your dreams and your goals worth it to them. Nurture them to thrive, not just survive.
5. Be impeccable with your output
Whether you're laundering tablecloths or formulating a $3 million marketing plan, demand excellence of yourself. Care deeply about what you create. Take immense pride in what you serve up. Labor with precision and dignity. Why? Because it's your joint, it's your name over the door, stamped on each plate. If your place of business doesn't meet the highest standards, you can't expect anyone to frequent it.
6. Leave no dish behind
If you have ever worked in an eatery — from a greasy spoon to a fine-dining establishment — you know you can't walk by a used plate on a table and not bring it back to the kitchen with you. If your boss saw your negligence and indifference, you'd be fired. Or at least you should be.
It's the same with business leadership. If you notice something needs to be done, do it. Go for that extra step; add another dose of exertion. Be proactive. Start the project even when you're still questioning how to complete it. Show up even when you're feeling unmotivated or insecure. Slow down when rushing jeopardizes the quality of your work. If you're going to wash the dishes, be the best dishwasher there is. Don't just get the job done; get it done superbly.
When you model these behaviors, you will gain self-respect. Your staff will admire you. Your clientele will appreciate you. And life will give you big tips!