Three Leadership Lessons Learned – as a Paper Boy

My first paid job was delivering newspapers. Six days a week for three years or so I slung about a hundred papers from one end of Sedro-Wooley, Washington’s Jameson Street to the other. That was thirteen blocks of out-and-back or zig-zag, depending on whether I wanted to end up back at home or playing Zaxxon at the corner store.

It wasn’t a bad gig really. I could set my own pace as long as I delivered on time and the base pay was reliable and sufficient to keep me flush in quarters and comic books. Like so many things we experience during our formative years, being a paperboy taught me several lessons about leadership and business. Here are three that contributed directly to any success I’ve enjoyed along the way and continue to influence my leadership style to this day.

We cannot dodge the rain

On foot or pedaling a bicycle, delivering newspapers in the Northwest meant getting wet. Whether mist, sprinkle, drizzle, shower, cloudburst, or deluge, some form of moisture was bound to fall along the way. Early on I tried two strategies to address this challenge: hurry and delay.

Neither worked.

Whether I was out for 45 minutes or an hour, I ended up just as wet. If anything, hurrying merely ensured I’d work up a sweat and also get soaked from the inside out. Worse yet, rushing increased the chances I would inadvertently wade through a puddle or skip a house and have to circle back.

Hunkering down and waiting for the rain to pass didn’t work either. It forced me to rush to meet my delivery deadline — and odds were high I’d still get caught in a squall.

My attempts to avoid or delay problems merely postponed them — and all too often compounded them.

This taught me I cannot dodge the rain, and also I can only get so wet.

Sticking to goals, having a good plan, and focused on the customer is the best way to ensure on-time delivery of quality products and services.

Put the paper in the tube

The going rate for a monthly subscription to the Skagit Valley Herald in my day was $5.75. My customers would often pay with a ten dollar bill and tell me to keep the change. It wasn’t a wealthy neighborhood and I often wondered why those high tippers were willing to pay me almost double the going rate. One day I worked up the nerve to ask.

The answer surprised me.

“Because,” the customer said, “you always put the paper in the tube.”

I had always figured putting the paper where my customers wanted it was my job — and a relatively simple one at that.

Apparently that was an uncommon approach to newspaper delivery.

This taught me that providing a customer with exactly the service they want can exceed their expectations.

Listen to more than words

When customers would travel for work or go on vacation, they would usually suspend their subscription or ask me to hold their papers for a time. But sometimes they’d forget, or perhaps have to leave town unexpectedly and had other things on their mind. When that happened, the papers would pile up.

It would have been simple enough to just keep cramming them into the tube. After all, my job was just to deliver them. But after about three days, I’d take the papers back and drop a note into their mailbox to say I hoped they were doing ok and that I was holding their papers for when they return.

I never had anyone complain about that. Usually they’d say thank you — and pay me with a ten dollar bill.

This taught me to listen even when words aren’t used to communicate. To pay attention to what a client needs, even if for some reason they don’t (or can’t) articulate them.

We cannot dodge the rain; put the paper in the tube; listen to more than words.

I’ve had a lot of jobs since my days slinging papers: bindery worker, dishwasher, restaurant host, waiter, bank teller, grocery store manager, university resident hall advisor, then U.S. Marine and today, owner of a leadership coaching and consulting business.

These three simple lessons continue to serve me well in each.

What are your thoughts?

What are your thoughts on these three lessons? What types of leadership lessons can you draw from your own experiences? Please share your ideas and questions in the discussion board below!