From Lifeguard to CEO

Column by Janine Popick, "Girl Power Female CEO's"
September 10, 2010

How my first job as a lifeguard ultimately prepared me for running an e-mail marketing business.

I was watching the Today Show a few weeks ago and they were doing a segment on first jobs. Matt Lauer was featured, and his first job was delivering the newspaper in his town. I thought it was funny because that’s essentially what he does today -- deliver news.

I started to think about my first job; I was a lifeguard at a local YMCA at a lake in Dutchess County, NY. So I broke down a few of the things I do as a leader in my company, and how that related to my duties as a lifeguard. Boy there were lots of similarities!

Educate & Mentor – As a lifeguard my job encompassed more than “saving lives.” One of the job requirements was to teach swim lessons at 7am (brrr was that lake cold!) to everyone from pre-schoolers to people over 40 who were afraid of the water.

What did that teach me? It’s the CEO’s job to facilitate education and mentorship. Your employees want to learn more about your business and their role in it and how they can be better at what they do. Here at VerticalResponse, we send our managers to management school and communications classes. We often send our employees to workshops and tradeshows to make them better at what they do. Then we ask that they come back and teach their colleagues about what they learned. It makes for a better company all around.

Teamwork – Being a swim coach for the swim team was another lifeguard duty for me. This involved a ton of teambuilding and teamwork. Recognition is a big part of that. And if we were under 18, we also had to participate and compete ourselves. It was our job to really get the team excited about winning, and when they did we all celebrated in our accomplishments.

What did that teach me? As a business leader, you need to foster teamwork or else nothing gets done. And your participation is key to that. Showing that you can roll up your sleeves in certain situations can be critical and really get the team going. And finally, recognizing accomplishments is critical to winning teams.

Taking Out the Trash – There were many parts of being a lifeguard that weren’t very glamorous. There were no Baywatch scenes going on in Dutchess County! Since we were outdoors at a lake, we had a small sand beach which needed to be raked constantly. We also had feathery friends that would visit the grassy area where families would enjoy the sun and the lakeview. Goose droppings needed to be picked up everywhere, every day. Boats needed nightly washing and at the beginning of every season about 40 lawn chairs needed a fresh coat of paint.

What did that teach me? Especially as a business leader there are many parts of your day that are not glamorous. You might have to take out the trash, go to the bank, order supplies, all the way down to cleaning the bathrooms, but you do it because it needs to be done. You also have to manage non-stop employee issues that need to be dealt with. I recently had a conversation with some employees who said “I’d trade places with you for a day,” to which I replied “OK, I’m about to go in and tell someone they need to work on x, y and z in order to keep their job, you want to trade now?” Needless to say they declined.

I’d love to hear your stories and if you think your first job prepared you at all for what you go through as a business leader!


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