As a double immigrant who worked his way through high school and university, I am a big believer in the lifelong benefits of working on the front line, early in life. My first job was in frontline customer service at age 16, for Canada’s largest sports store chain, Collegiate Sports (now Sport Chek), in a flagship mall in Toronto. I started as a sales clerk selling shoes, retail apparel, ski equipment, and stringing tennis racquets.
As a student-athlete, I was fortunate to work in a large sports department store situated in a multicultural city and to serve all kinds of people across all age groups. Our customers ranged from consummate “old stock Canadian” athletes who were fanatical about every detail when ordering custom equipment to wide-eyed gullible immigrants whose children were seeking to learn a new sport like hockey or snowboarding. It was a fast-paced atmosphere, with heavy traffic in the evenings and weekends buzzing with energy like a casino hotel on the Las Vegas strip.
It was a very demanding job because it required being on your feet for 6-10 hours a shift and being constantly “switched on” to engage customers. Over time, I learned how to read customers’ non-verbal facial expressions and body language, which varied widely by their ethnicities and stage of life.
It also required meticulous knowledge of every major sporting activity, existing inventory, and prices for all the product lines and brands. Our work included labor-intensive tasks like tagging the products, stocking the shelves, and cleaning the store after hours. Arranging the product assortment on the floor to generate traffic was a daily process of trial and error.
The store manager was a colorful French-Canadian guy named Guy who was a die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan with a profound sense of humor. Typical of 1980s Toronto, the staff was composed of up-and-comers, including many Asian, European, and Caribbean immigrants. Guy was great at motivating staff, casting people in the right departments, creating internal sales contests and holding us accountable. He had a keen eye for talent and was adept at identifying and investing in adaptive learners who could conquer a complex department like ski equipment or hockey skates and outsell others.
Guy’s greatest skill was building an informal talent marketplace, in one of the world’s most diverse cities extremely well. He understood that a high-performing diverse team of employees who felt like the store was their own business, would not just generate loyal customers but grow the sports retail business. It was an incredibly diverse meritocracy of over 500 employees: Jamaican kids rose from selling track shoes to managing winter sports and women moved from apparel to assistant manager roles overseeing budgets and purchasing. I remember training a Jamaican immigrant (who was the best sprinter in Toronto) how to choose and string tennis racquets, and she taught me about the subtle differences in track and field spikes depending on specific events and surfaces.
It was not always pleasurable. When the store missed its numbers, he schooled us for not being productive. He would curse at us with Quebecois nouns, poke fun at our beloved Toronto Maple Leaf’s and if revenues were under budget, walk us back to his office which doubled as “banc des pénalités” (“penalty box”). His diminutive office was adjacent to the noisy warehouse receiving truck shipments, welding, and assembling equipment. Here Guy would shout out the disappointing financial results and present the blue-collar workers whose strenuous labor made it possible for us to sell products on the floor. He reminded us that even the most talented players end up in the penalty box and cost their team when they fail to trust their teammates.
Over the course of four years, this job taught me three things I would use in the rest of my career: First, the benefits of building a high-performing team of diverse colleagues; second, the apprenticeship model of learning from management, peers, and customers; and third, how the real world has a magical way of revealing where your greatest talents reside, even if it contradicts what your teachers and test scores suggest are your utmost strengths.
In my last year on the job, Guy got promoted to regional VP overseeing 100 stores in Eastern Canada. Still, he sought me out once every few months. In our last few meetings, he expressed his gratitude that I helped recruit tens of what he called “gens talentueux” or highly talented and diverse employees – mostly high school athletes – that drew waves of new customers into his stores and grew the business. The last few times we met, Guy, tried to persuade me into becoming a store manager and retail executive like he was. As an Asian immigrant with Ivy League dreams, I was not ready to take this career path.
However, years later after graduating from Harvard Business School and joining the executive ranks of the hospitality industry, I was able to harness this cross-cultural competence to achieve breakthrough results. And when I became a senior executive and eventually a hospitality CEO, it made all the difference. Thanks to years on the front line, I was able to swiftly unearth customer needs, connect deeply with front-line employees and build collaborative cross-cultural teams in challenging markets where I had no prior work experience, did not speak the language, and was an outsider.
These lessons seem lost on today’s labor market, where millions of Gen X and Y are choosing the gig economy or hybrid jobs where they can avoid live human interaction and face-to-face conflict.
Driving around town and leaving bags on a front door with text confirmations is not a front- line service. It may provide contractors with flexibility and more hourly pay, but it stunts their growth and there is no career path. The career development trade-offs of performing these gig economy jobs are far more significant than they realize. It was my years serving on the front- line, which taught me to how to build teams, lead change in large organizations and eventually become an entrepreneur. And for that, I am grateful.