Extra! Extra! Newspaper Routes Create Leaders

This week I taped some segments for my new talk show, “Talk About Choices.” Once again, I asked successful, entrepreneurial leaders, “What was your very first job?” And once again, I heard the response: “I had a paper route.”

One of my first guests, Bob Carey, chief market strategist for First Trust Portfolios, told me how having a paper route shaped his business acumen. Bob had a route that few kids in the neighborhood wanted–all his customers were in a retirement community. Previously there had been a lot of turnover because kids his age didn’t want to deal with older people. Bob took it on and built his route from 30 customers to 100. What were the secrets he learned as a paperboy?

“Provide great service,” he said. “Show up. Do what people want and good things happen.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in there for anyone running a business, leading a team and/or serving clients and customers. Let’s break it down:

  • Provide great service. This seems obvious, but anyone who is in business knows it’s easier said than done. How do you define great service? More importantly, how do your clients or customers define it? Do they expect you to return your calls within the hour? Within the day? 24 hours? When is the last time you asked them how they define great service? There’s sometimes a gap between what we think is great service and what the client thinks is great service. We need to be crystal clear about their expectations if we want to have any chance of meeting them.
  • Show up. There’s a saying attributed to Woody Allen (no longer my favorite director for reasons that should be obvious, but have to give credit where credit is due): “85% of life is just showing up.” Ain’t it the truth? Or, to quote the old tagline from the lottery, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” Showing up on time, showing up ready to do business, showing up all ears, committed to listening–those are variations on the theme. But first, you gotta show up.
  • Do what people want and good things happen. Let’s assume that what people want (the market) is what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about and what you are burning with desire to deliver (your service). And let’s assume it’s legal, moral and ethical. Do that–just that–and good things happen. Deliver the paper on time, every day, on the stoop where they like it, collect on time and have a smile on your face when that customer opens the door, and good things happen. For Bob, those good things include a role as chief market strategist for a highly respected investment management company, a role that allows him not only to make a difference in the world of finance but also subsidizes his penchant for fabulous guitars.

What was your first job? I’d love to hear about it. (Comment below, please.) Did you have a paper route? Did you babysit? That was my foray into entrepreneurship. I’ll save those stories for another blogpost. First, I want to hear yours.

P.S. Millennials, since paper routes for kids may have gone the way of the rotary phone, please tell us: what was your first job?