When 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.
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.
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.