Lessons from the Worst Job I Ever Had

“When I was 19 and a private in the Army, I was a construction surveyor. The first survey I led was in eastern Oklahoma in hilly and heavily wooded terrain. Our task was to build a two-mile track, perfectly straight through the woods. We were naive and thought that this was achievable, but it was a pretty impossible task. When you went out to the job site, you could see that you were not going to have a line of sight. There was quite a bit of area that needed to be cleared just to pull a tape through the woods. So we were sent out with a crew. Now, I’m a small person anyway, but back then I could barely reach 90 pounds. And I was paired up with a guy whom I outweighed—he was a skinny little guy, too! And it turned out that our work crew was from the local prison. So here we were, loaded up on a truck: six prisoners with machetes and chainsaws and two little scrawny privates. We were dropped off into the middle of nowhere and worked dawn to dusk with these inmates. Neither of us was really in a position to protect one another if things went bad. We completed the survey in six weeks, faster than we were assigned to do it. I learned lifelong lessons about trust and focusing on the task at hand—and about how to lead without intimidating. It was incredibly scary, but it ended up being one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

Jill Castilla is president and CEO of Citizens Bank of Edmond, Edmond, Okla.

“I always worked at least two jobs while going to college. One of the most interesting was working the midnight shift at the newspaper in town. That job entailed getting the newspapers packaged and prepared for delivery by 3 a.m. to the Post Office. Trust me when I say that most of my fellow employees for that shift came from the “rough and tumble” side of the community. I decided on the first night that I should just work hard, keep my head down and not draw attention to myself. Unfortunately, my work ethic was noticed by the supervisor and he quickly decided on my first night on the job that I should be the driver of the truck to deliver the papers at the end of the shift. At the time, I was confident that it was my work ethic that drew his attention to me. Looking back years later, I think I was selected to drive the truck because he knew I was the only one working who held a valid driver’s license! He threw me the keys and loudly instructed three of my friendly fellow employees to go with Plagge to deliver the papers. As soon as we got outside of the building, one of those fellow employees told me to throw him the keys because he was driving. Noting his size, angry demeanor and bulldog leadership style, I quickly decided that he would be an excellent driver and I threw him the keys. Needless to say, we made it back and forth from the Post Office in record time. I learned two things that night: first, some people have a leadership style that is more direct than others, and second, I needed to take college more seriously and get a real job.”

—Jeff Plagge is president and CEO of Northwest Financial Corp., Arnolds Park, Iowa

“In highschool I was hired by a local farmer at a “personnel auction” as a fundraiser for my senior class. He was a customer of the bank and he hired me for a few days to clean out some barns on one of his places. “How bad can that be?” I thought. I do a lot of physical activity, I’ve hauled a lot of hay, and—yes—I’ve shoveled some s—t from time to time. Armed with a heavy pitchfork and shovel, I showed up to my charge. What he failed to tell me is these four barns were purchased from a long-since-retired hog farmer. Those of you familiar with the various strains of manure know that a hog produces a certain kind of ammonia that even a bottle of “Mr. Clean” could not reproduce. What I didn’t know is that it is virtually undetectable through the first few years’ worth of material. I thought this was going to be a snap and I would be done early. However, when I got down to approximately 1965, the level of ammonia present was as pungent as the day it was deposited. After I was able to gather my wits and get a handle on my gag reflex, I finally got the required task completed. I don’t recall having any issues with my sinuses for the next several years, and to this day, chopping up a bushel of onions just doesn’t seem that bad. Lesson learned: You most certainly cannot judge a book by its cover—and sometimes after a perfectly good loan goes bad, you never get a full appreciation until you peel off enough layers to get to the real odor!”

—Craig Meader is chairman and CEO of First National Bank of Kansas, Waverly, Kan.

“During my fresman year of college I worked nights stocking the shelves in a local grocery store—for beer money. (I am so old the drinking age was 18 then.) I found it both boring and tiring, but it did serve to remind me that by attending college I might get a more rewarding job in the future.”

—Charles Petersen is co-president and CEO of Maine Community Bancorp, Biddeford, Maine.

“I’d worked at our family bank since the sixth grade, and on our family farm before that, but I came home the summer I turned 16 just thinking I would relax and have fun. Not so, thought my father, who had anticipated all this—he expected me to request work at the bank well before summer—so he already had a project lined up. He woke me early the first morning of my summer vacation with the strong “suggestion” that I visit our barn and begin removing four years of the biological leavings of our cattle herd. As I very slowly made my way to the barn, I realized that, just perhaps, this summer was heading in a different direction than I had hoped for. And so I became an expert at waste removal—a skill that many of my friends would say that I continue to use to this day.”

—Paul Willson is chairman of Citizens National Bank, Athens, Tenn.