An Unlikely Training Ground

By Brett Cafferty

Last week I was speaking with the general manager of a local restaurant group. He’s in his 20s, and I asked about his background in preparation for his current job. In addition to his business degree, he spent several years working with Chick-fil-A, learning a great deal about customer service, being coached and coaching others, and the basics of business – all equipping him for the role he is in now. This conversation reminded me of all the lessons I learned at one my first jobs, where I had no idea of the importance and application of what I was learning until years later.

The summer after high school, I started work at a family-owned, full-service Exxon station in Charlotte, NC. We pumped gas, cleaned windshields, checked the oil, and made service calls to fix flat tires and start cars with dead batteries. After catching on to the basics, responsibilities were added, leading to oil changes and minor repairs, ordering parts, maintaining inventories, and handling money. At the time I thought nothing of it.

But outside of the actual tasks of the job, it was an excellent education in learning about people. The business was located at the corner of a busy intersection, allowing contact with every type of person imaginable – business professionals, travelers asking for directions (long before GPS), young and old, wealthy and not.

In a short amount of time, I had been involved in thousands of interactions with people of all types, learning to understand, get along with, and communicate with others. I had no idea that would be of any value, it was just the job I did.

I started my first outside sales role in my early 20s, and although it was not apparent to me at the time, all of that “training on the corner” had allowed me to be far more comfortable in dealing with people. In the sales and management roles that followed, I continued to realize how much of the “business basics” learned at that corner service station were applicable to my then current business role and still apply today.  

At a wedding in 2010, I ran into that service station owner from 25+ years ago. The first thing that came to mind was to let him know that the time I worked for them was a tremendous training ground that prepared me for the “adult” business world. I owed him a big “thank you!” Accounting, management, and professional development courses certainly added to this, but looking back, the real-world experience and coaching I received was instrumental in allowing me to develop and be equipped for later professional roles.

My reason for sharing this is to encourage those who may think that a first job, or a short-term job that may not seem relevant, could end up being a very important chapter in your life’s story. It was in mine.

And to all of the small business owners who invest the time and effort to “train up” the next generation – thank you!