Helping Employees Dream: Create Space
Right out of high school, I got a job at the gas station just down the road. I wanted to be a writer, you see, and I figured I needed stories. So when the Amoco was hiring during that summer of 1990, I figured it was the perfect place to mingle and meet people out in the world.
Maybe I should have gone to college instead, but I was right about one thing: that old Amoco was full of stories. Dozens of them, hundreds, all wrapped up in the flesh and blood of the crowd of people who walked through those doors and handed me money every day. The rich and the poor, the saved and the cursed, the cheats, the “no-counts,” the broken and the mended. I met them all. At some point, we all need to top off the tank in the family car. Gas is the great equalizer.
The Work and the Dream
I always carried a notebook, because that’s what writers did—one of those cheap ones with the spiral at the top that fit perfect in the back pocket of my jeans. Everything went on those thin pages—bits of description, snippets of dialogue, and some of the most inane observations on life you could possibly imagine. I could go through four of those notebooks a week, one for every ten hours of work.
And that’s where things started to go wrong. Because to me, I wasn’t a high school graduate stuck working behind a register while all my other friends were going off to college. I wasn’t looking hard at a career as a “petroleum-transfer engineer.” I was a writer. This job was research, gathering grist for the mill.
Unfortunately, my boss was under the impression that I was paid not by how many pages I filled in my notebook each day, but by how many customers I waited on, how much gas I pumped, and how many future convicts I could stop from tearing out of the lot without paying for their ten gallons of regular.
He talked to me, my boss. He’d ease his way up to the register and glance over my shoulder, read a few words. Ask me what I was doing and then ask me what I should be doing, which were usually two different things. It all scared me enough to start worrying I was going to fulfill every redneck stereotype and get fired from a gas station. But it didn’t worry me enough to stop writing while on the job.
When my boss called me into the back one evening a week later, I figured my immaturity was finally catching up with me. He didn’t take me into his tiny office, though. He took me out back, instead, far from the smell of exhaust and the sounds of engines and horns, out to a spot near the warehouse. There, at the edge of the pavement, a cracked vinyl seat had been placed overlooking the cornfields and mountains beyond.
“You get an hour for lunch a day from now on,” he said. “I’ll make sure you don’t get interrupted so you can do your scribbling. An hour solid. Figure that’ll be plenty of time for you to get it all out. Right?”
I could only nod.
“The other eight hours you’re here, you’re paying attention. Right?”
“Good. But make sure you write. I read some of your notebook the other day when you left it open. You don’t suck.”
And that was it. I spent my first lunch hour out in the back that day and managed to fill half a notebook, and I sat right there every Tuesday through Saturday for the next eight years filling notebooks, too. It rained, my boss would leave the warehouse door open so I could set my chair inside. Same when it snowed. Those eight years were the greatest education I could have.
Not just in writing, either. Sure, there were the stories. Enough to last me for years. But I learned this, too—it’s the little things that turn what you dream of into what you live. Little things like a boss who understood when to be strict and when to go easy, and how sometimes those were the same thing. Or that sometimes pursuing a goal also means fulfilling your responsibilities elsewhere first and pursuing later. And this one, especially: No matter what your work may be, there is still dignity inherent to it, a purpose far more valuable than you may know. Even if that job is just a petroleum-transfer engineer.
I don’t work there anymore. Still buy my gas there, though. Still talk to my old boss. I make sure he gets a copy of every novel I write. On the house, I’ll tell him.
And sometimes I’ll top off my tank and then take a walk out back, look out over those fields and mountains. I’ll stand in the spot where that old vinyl chair once was, and I’ll remind myself this: You would be amazed at the lengths people will go to in order to help you reach your goals. You will be more amazed at the tiny things you can do in order to help others reach theirs. I learned both at that Amoco, and I was the better for it.
Helping Employees Fulfill Their Dreams
The TV show Undercover Boss gives employers a unique opportunity to spend a few days in their employees' shoes. CEOs and Presidents of large and successful companies go undercover and do the work of people who work on the front line every day. Through this experience, the employer often gets the chance to hear the dreams of their employees firsthand. Hearing the hopes and dreams those employees have for their families, their futures, and themselves often becomes the catalyst for the employer to help make those dreams come true.
Not every employer gets a chance to spend a day in an employee's shoes, but each employer/employee relationship is worthy of faithful and compassionate stewardship. Every interaction is an opportunity to lead from the soul. In this series, Helping Employees Fulfill Their Dreams, we'll explore what it means to lead from the soul in our relationships with our employees, even if we never make it on a television reality show.