Funny you should ask ... Tim Gamble

What was your first boss like?

This is a great question, not easy to answer. Bosses, I’ve had a few, but my first boss taught me what I needed to know. He didn’t mean to, but he did.

I should start at the beginning; I was in college, broke and needing some quick cash. A friend told me that his roommate was working part-time at an employment agency and he might be able to help me out. He sent me on three interviews. The first two left me with the impression that you must have certain skills to do certain jobs even though the jobs didn’t pay much. The third job interview he sent me to, essentially, required no brainpower whatsoever. A local furniture retailer needed some temporary help unloading boxcars at their warehouse. They had 50 cars on the spur and were paying substantial demurrage charges to the railroad and needed those cars unloaded quickly.

I went to the warehouse personnel office and explained why I was there and who sent me. I was dressed appropriately, well-groomed and I spoke the King’s English, as they say. The personnel director said, “No thank you.” I asked if the job had been filled. She said, “No.” I said, “Well, I’d like to see if I could fill the bill.” “You’re not what we’re looking for,” she replied.

That would have been the end of it, but then she made a remark that I probably couldn’t pass the IQ test anyway. I looked at her and asked, “When and where is this test?” I may have sounded a little agitated. She was noticeably shaken and told me, “Friday, here, 9 am.” At the time, I thought this was strange. All I wanted to do was unload a few boxcars, cash the check and be on my way.

The testing lasted for five hours, which included an actual IQ test, an exam on the meaning of business terms, a battery of psychological profile tests, and manual dexterity tests. No wonder they couldn’t get their boxcars unloaded.

After the tests, I was called in to speak with the branch manager. He said he wanted to hire me and asked what I wanted to accomplish while working for the company. How high up did I want to go? I didn’t want to tell him all I wanted to do was unload a few boxcars and be on my way, so I told him I wanted to be the president of the company someday. He told me there was a long line ahead of me, but if I worked hard, anything was possible. It turns out that part of his job was to map out career paths for all his employees so they could see their future and be more apt to stay with the company over the long haul. We spent the entire afternoon charting my path.

I was hired and spent my first two weeks in those boxcars, hot days, no air conditioning, sweating my fanny off. I quickly came to respect the fellows that had been doing this day-in and day-out for years. I spent the next two months in the warehouse learning all the systems. The branch manager came to me and said he had an opening in the merchandising department and asked me If I wanted the job. I would have said yes to anything to get out of that warehouse.

So, I started wearing collared shirts and ties and began a career as a furniture buyer. No training. If you have any questions just ask. I attended weekly management meetings, listening, hoping not to expose myself to be the moron I was. I soon found out I was working with other people who were just as clueless. None of us were actual morons, but it became clear to me early on that some things just didn’t make any sense. I knew what the processes were, but the results were iffy. The company motto seemed to be, “The system works, follow the system.” Only the system didn’t always deliver the intended results. The motto should have been, “Follow the system and stand by for the recriminations.”

What I learned from my first boss is that there were no tough acts to follow, that if you wanted to be successful, it’s always better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Simply put, if you were going to get your head handed to you anyway, it’s better to do a good job and take a shot at something that might work rather than pointing fingers at the system as the ship went down. I spent my entire career with that furniture company playing “you bet your job.” One slip and your gone.

I spent the next couple of decades working for what became the largest furniture company in America. I traveled the country opening, running, and closing various stores. Money was never again an issue. Ironically, I never made it to the president’s office, but I remember saying many times that this job is so much fun I would have done it for free.

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