Good Dads and Good Bosses

imageWhen I first read “10 Things Extraordinary Bosses Give Employees” in Inc. Magazine, I was convinced that it couldn’t apply to everything. To prove Jeff Haden wrong, I decided to think about one of the most mindless jobs I ever had.

It was my first job, and I was planning to talk about how my first boss didn’t really have the opportunity to be extraordinary. It turns out, after some fair reflection, my first boss (my father) would have agreed with Jeff.

In case you think “well yeah, we all kind of worked for our parents,” this was a real job. He managed Bridgeville Recreation Center, an 8-lane bowling alley, and like my brother before me, I began my working life as a pin-boy.

I started setting pins at the age of 12. I was lucky; I had long fingers. Pin-boys need long fingers because we had to pick up 4 Rubber band duckpins at once.

When I looked at Jeff’s list of 10 things, I was quickly drawn to numbers 8 and 9 – Private Criticism, Public Praise. Um, no Jeff, you have that backward. When you were a pin boy, criticism was immediate, and public. My father would yell from behind the counter “Number 6. Quit screwing around!” He had a thunderous voice that number 6 wasn’t about to ignore. The message wasn’t lost on numbers 1-5, 7 & 8 either.

Life in the pits (where the pins fall) was actually boring. Most of us had the deadwood cleared or the pins set and the balls returned, well before the person was ready to toss the next ball. In fact, there was enough slack that a good pin-boy could cover two lanes. In our free time we stuck knives in the bench-like structure that we sat on, ate snacks, drank soda and us younger kids listened to jokes and stories told by the older guys. We also acted up. Most of the time, nobody was bothered by our antics, but when our feet moved or if we got too loud, the bowlers would complain and my dad would shout.

As for praise, it came quietly and when no one else was around. That was to prevent you from being identified as (and picked on for) sucking up to the boss. The pits were not a place you wanted to stand out for being a good boy.

As for the other 8 items:image

Autonomy and independence – The pins were set in a pattern. You could vary the pattern but not by much. Duck pins were held in pairs, so adjacent pins could be set by just bending your wrist. You set the outside pins last, so the bowler didn’t think you were done before you were.

Clear expectations – Set the pins, clear the deadwood. Do NOT get soda, chocolate or potato chip grease on the balls. When setting Ten Pins, return the ball before clearing the deadwood.image

Meaningful objectives – We all labored under two clear objectives – don’t get hurt, don’t get fired. However, lanes 7 & 8 were where the professional bowlers bowled on Fridays. If you were good, you might get one of those lanes. We all made 10¢ a line (one person for one game). If you were lucky enough to set for the pros, they just might continue to bowl into the wee hours for money, and you just might get a huge tip from the guy who won.

A true sense of purpose – My father explained to each of us that if the bowlers didn’t like our service, the leagues would go elsewhere or the owner would install machines and there wouldn’t be a need for pin boys.

Opportunities to provide significant input – These were few and far between, but my father was open minded. Once, I showed him how I could pick up three pins in each hand (I had freakishly long fingers). He timed me. It turned out that I would waste more time picking up the 3rd pin than I would save setting in groups of three. Still, he gave me the chance.

A real sense of connection – My father was connected to us. He made us bring him our report cards; if our grades fell, he cut our hours. He gave kids rides to and from work if their parents were jammed up. He also talked the owner into offering an incentive program. An additional 1 ½¢ per line was set aside. At the end of the season, that money was divided among the pin-boys. Of course, the program was really designed to keep us from quitting when it got warm enough for baseball, but…

Reliable consistency – My father was nothing if not consistent, and being his son didn’t help me or my brother. If we were number 6, we were getting an earful.

A chance for a meaningful future – Actually, yes. If one of the bowlers was looking to hire, you could count on a recommendation from my dad. That probably meant that you could count on a job. Of course, if you left before the season was over, you could kiss that bonus goodbye.

In addition to being an extraordinary dad, it also seems that my dad was a pretty good boss. He would have been 91 last week, and we’ve missed him for over 30 years.

12 thoughts on “Good Dads and Good Bosses

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  1. Pictures – That’s the previous home of Bridgeville Recreation Center. I spent a lot of time there while growing up, and I learned a lot of things (some can even be mentioned in polite company). The bowler is our daughter Faith. I don’t think she picked up that split, but it wasn’t because she was distracted by the pin boy. These lanes were the big competition to BRC, but they only had Ten Pins. The illustration shows my method for setting the full rack.


  2. I think you’re onto something, about 8& 9. Not necessarily that it’s wrong, but it needs to be taken into context. For an office setting, your method of father yelling and quietly letting you know you did a good job decreases morale or ends up making the boss look bad. There’s no sucking up, rather it’s you done a good job. Adolescent boys quietly envy the kid who’s sucking up possibly because they don’t know how. Corporate culture people will be vying for that pay raise or promotion, so when a boss outwardly let’s the employees know what he/she liked, other people will be trying to do the same to look good in the boss’ eyes.

    I guess the context thing can be taken for a lot of them. Autonomy and Independence is only helpful once employees have a set foundation on what needs to be done.


    1. Thanks for reading and adding a thoughtful comment. You’re right, this might be controlled by context. Sometimes, the “message” isn’t the one being delivered to the person. My dad was delivering a message to the bowlers that “this stuff is going to stop” at a point where they needed to hear it. It usually doesn’t work in a corporate environment but there are subtle ways of sending that same kind of message. One is the “Dan, can I talk to you after this meeting?” Oh yeah, message received :)


  3. First of all, I am touched by the last words of your post. I have been lucky since my dad was part of my life until last summer. He was still young and I miss him a lot. Reading that you are still missing yours after so many years is very moving.
    Then, I like how you tie your first job’s experience to the Inc. Magazine’s article. The bowling alley backstage visit is fun, entertaining but also very meaningful.
    Working for one’s parents isn’t easy. You’ve learned a lot about human relations with your father, customers, and other employees, including your brother. Relationships matter a lot in the workplace and this first job must have left an important impact, which explains why you still remember so vividly about your pin-boy’s years.


    1. Thank you so much. My dad was big on “the value of work” but he was very easy to work with and I think most of us would agree that he was easy to work for. I think of him often, I think of how he would do something or something will happen that will remind me of him. I spent a lot of time with him at that bowling alley. I’m sorry that you lost your dad while he was young, it’s hard, but it feels good to remember.


  4. Your post brought back memories of the many years I bowled on a league. Thank you so much for the time you spent resetting pins and getting bowling balls unstuck. You did a great job!


  5. With a dad at 91, you must be near my age. Nice remembrance of him, and his management style – and your first job. I also set pins over several teenage summers, mostly 5-pin in a Canadian bowling alley, though some 10-pin. You reminded me of the holds and movements for both. :)


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