Take Charge Of Your Own Career Direction

Some of the best career advice I ever received was from one of my previous bosses.Harold owned the Sunoco station where I worked, early in my career. Harold always boasted, “I’m a great guy to work for but I’m a terrible boss”. Harold hired me as a gas station attendant (pump jockey) to “work the drive” at his full service gas station.

Back in the day, gas stations were primarily, full service and the pump jockey (like me) came out to your car, took your order and pumped the amount of gasoline you asked for, while you waited inside your car. While you were waiting, I washed your windows, I checked your oil (and other fluid levels) and I checked the air in the tires… EVERY TIME; Ahhh, the Good Old Days!

At that time, I had neither been to college nor did I have a trade and I accepted the job from Harold under the condition that he would teach me the automotive trade. I worked hard every day to add value in what ever way I could. I not only waited on customers when they came to our station, I tried to attract new customers who might otherwise drive right past our station to a competing, lower priced, self-serve stations on the next corner and directly across the street from us. I dressed up like a pirate on Halloween. I handed out candy canes at Christmas. I dyed my hair green on St. Patrick’s Day. Basically, I did whatever I could to attract business from the other brands.

I worked there for 6 years and what I loved most was interacting with the customers and they loved me. It was a blast! The first couple of years passed and there was an opening in the garage. Harold filled the job with a mechanic who used to work for him and wanted to return.

OK, I thought. It just isn’t my time yet, I told myself (in an attempt to self soothe). More time passed and another opening came and went but this time one of Harold’s friends (a gifted mechanic) needed a job.

I understand (I told myself), after all this was his good friend. Finally, another year went by and another opportunity came available. I knew I needed to go to Harold and remind him of our agreement (when I started) that he would teach me the automotive trade.

During my years at Sunoco, I learned a lot about the automotive trade and I really enjoyed working there. Harold paid me well. He even helped Teresa and I get our first home. Harold loved us and we knew it but I was afraid.

I was scared that Harold would retire, sell the station and I would be back making minimum wage. We were a young family. I had a wife and a baby to provide for. It was my time now and I knew that all my patience would pay off. I knew that Harold was a man of his word. I was finally going to become a mechanic and learn the trade that I so desperately felt gave me the security I was seeking. By now two weeks had gone by and I was still “working the drive”. Harold still had not asked me to take the mechanic job.

The station was closed on Sundays (another absurd concept abandoned by business; except Chic Fillet). Harold could always be found enjoying a good cigar in the back room while he caught up on bookwork. I knew that Sunday was the time and place for me to have the discussion; less distractions.

I decided to go in and wash my car (a common occurrence for employees at our Sunoco). That way it wouldn’t appear like I was confronting him and we could we could just have that uninterrupted conversation we needed to have.

I got up early and drove East into the blinding sunrise, to the Sunoco station. Harold’s light blue GMC Jimmy was parked out front. I went to the side door, squeezed past the dumpster and opened the overhead door. Harold sat with a ring of cigar smoke hanging overhead like a Christmas wreath. We small talked a bit and I began washing my car. After a while I crept into the back room to broach the subject we had been avoiding.

Harold? “Huh”, he grunted. Harold, I was wondering if you were going to offer me the job in the garage and teach me to be a mechanic? … Silence (Crickets) … Harold stood up and walked out of the room. This was typical behavior for him when dealing with conflict he tended to walk away from the person and yell back his end of the conversation back over his shoulder. If you wanted to engage him you had to chase him or the conversation would die.

I followed him out of the room, reminding him of our employment agreement four years ago. I tried to explain, “I need to learn a trade for my own job security”. Then Harold stopped, turned around and very calmly stated, “I can’t afford to put you in the garage.” Why? I questioned, with a pleading tone. “Because since you’ve been working the drive, my fuel sales have gone up 30% year over year and I can’t afford to put you in the back; I need you out front”. Harold, that’s not fair to me, I reasoned. I need to get a trade!

Then Harold gave me some of the best career advice I would ever recieve,

“You know Joe, you have to take charge of your own career.”

He was right. It was never his responsibility to prepare me for the future I wanted for myself. It was my Job.

There you have it… I realized for the first time that it wasn’t Harold who was keeping me from learning a trade it was me. I was trying to put him in charge of my career and he wouldn’t have it. I did a great job for Harold but a pretty crappy job for myself and my family. In four years I had not taken one automotive engine repair class or taken any steps to prepare me for future opportunity. Instead, I was content to just wait.

I could’ve came in on Sundays when the other mechanics were installing intake gaskets or replacing cracked engine heads (work that was out of scope for Harold’s business but was great side work for his employees). I could have came in to watch, listen, help where I would and learn from the experienced people; thereby, educating myself and taking charge of my own career. But I didn’t.

Instead, I chose to hope, wish, plead, beg and occasionally whine about what I wanted in place of preparing for and pursuing my own career. In hindsight, I realize now, that I would have hated being in that garage under the hood of some rusty, old “S^!t box” instead of being out with the people, drawing them in to the Sunoco station away from their current service station, making them feel cherished by adding value to the service I provided. That’s what I get jazzed up about; helping people.

Being responsible for determining, pursuing, and achieving your overall career direction can be intimidating. All those years ago, I thought I knew what I wanted to do; become a mechanic. I was focusing on what I could do to gain security instead of what I could do to make a difference; never realizing that “making a difference” would bring the job security I was looking for.

   3 Steps To Take Charge Of Your Own Career:

      1. Understand what you want to do- Start by assessing what your already doing in your life, first in your job, then look at where you spend your free time (part time work, volunteer work, hobbies, etc.). What activity do you engage in that you not only enjoy but also find most gratifying and rewarding? For me, I like helping people but that is not specific enough to help me take charge of my career. You have to ask yourself, “what people do I like to help; young people, old people, people with special needs, customers, employees?” Answer this question for yourself and you will solve the mystery of what you want to do. Marcus Buckingham writes extensively on the topic in his book Go Put Your Strengths To Work
      2. Determine how you want to do it- My good friend and therapist Barry told me when he was in college studying social work, one of his professors asked him, “Why do you want to be a social worker; Is it to help people or to make money?” Barry grappled with the simplicity of the question, “Why do you ask?” he said. “Because, if your goal is really to help people, go get a job and volunteer your time helping people but if your goal is to make a lot of money, realize that the more money you make, the further away the business takes you from really helping people.

This is a real phenomenon and neither answer is wrong. I’ve struggled with it myself. I learned early on (at Sunoco) that I love helping people and doing that well has created opportunities for me. But the higher I move in my career the further away I get from the people I want to help most.

Why? you ask. Because, I can’t work directly with people on their goals and spend all my time in meetings or working on budgets etc. The higher up you go where the money seemingly is, you end up working on the organizations goals. Helping the organization is still a noble endeavor but it may not be as personal.

That’s why I created TheAboveAverageJoe.com website. Helping people strengthens me and this is how I want to do it to keep it personal.

3. Determine where you want to do it- Some people choose education. Barry chose Social Work and is very successful. I chose business and I’ve had “Above Average” results.