What Summer Jobs Teach Leaders

Laura Yamanaka runs a company that places CFOs and other financial professionals in interim positions at companies. Yet she started her working career as a waitress, working summers for a catering company in Central California.

The job lacked grandeur and glory, serving Rotary men after their annual golf tournament or carving prime rib at an anniversary party. Yet the lessons learned have stayed with Yamanaka for many years, and even show up in the ways she now runs her company teamCFO Inc. in Los Angeles.

“He paid $1 more an hour, which was huge back then,” she said, noting that the caterer, whose name is Howard, said once he found good people he wanted to keep them. “We did feel that we were elite. . . . It went a long way toward making us feel we were special.”

Now as she looks for interim financial professionals, she pays them more. “I believe it will come back to us. They’ll work longer and harder. I am going to take care of them as well as take care of my clients. It’s the same thing that Howard did,” said Yamanaka, who worked for Ernst & Young and PriceWaterhouseCoopers before starting her own company.

Summer jobs and internships are starting up in amusement parks, business parks, camps, college campuses and zoos – and young people will learn myriad lessons from the jobs, whether they involve spreadsheets or serving steak. So whether you’re the young person’s boss or best workplace buddy for the summer, the way you work, your approach, rules and expectations could make a big impression on a 17-year-old.

“It has a big impact…. They’re really observing,” said Yamanaka. Her job with Howard and the catering crew still sticks with her. “If there was a yucky job, we all did it. If there was an easy job we all did it,” she recalls. One dirty job involved cleaning up after the prime rib dinners – “heavy duty grease and all that fat.” So they took turns washing up and cleaning up.  Likewise, they took turns pouring champagne at wedding receptions, one of the cool and coveted jobs.

Other CEOs have similar situations that stick with them from early summer jobs.

As a teen, Robert Hohman, co-founder and CEO of Glassdoor.com, loved computer programming and used his Vic-20 computer to write a game, but it kept running out of memory. He needed $169 to expand the memory. “My parents said if I saved the money, I could get it,” he recalled. “My grandparents had a dairy farm and that’s how I ended up bailing hay.”

He learned three things: the sweetness of sleep and food after a day of bailing hay; even with 32KB of memory, he could make a “pretty good game” and “I learned the value of hard work, and pushing, pushing, pushing until you get there,” he said in an email. “I distinctly recall being exhausted on that hay wagon thinking, “Well if I want that memory, I better keep going.”

Julie R. Weeks, CEO of Womenable, a research and consulting firm focused on women business owners, remembers learning the value of hard work from her three summers of cleaning cottages in Northern Michigan. The job impressed on her the importance of going to college and skipping manual labor work. “This was my college money I was working for, so every scrubbed floor was one textbook,” she said in an email interview. With a bevy of regular renters coming to the cabins, Weeks also learned about the value of customer satisfaction and repeat business. Plus her boss, Mrs. Whitfield, was exacting “but a real sweetie… a very good role model for a manager,” Weeks said.

Later on she worked as a page in the state legislature in Lansing, Mich., where she experienced the hard work of elected officials and discovered “there is great learning to be had by being a fly on the wall.”

So remember: This summer the fly watching you and learning from you may be a CEO of a fast-growing company in a few years.