No eleven-year-old imagines using paper route earnings for the family’s only Christmas gifts, but that’s how we paid for special treats under the tree during our first winter in Indianapolis. My eight dollars couldn’t buy much, but it was enough for fresh fruit—a splurge my mother typically would forgo so her paycheck would stretch further. She spent what she had left, plus my donation, to buy apples, peaches, and oranges. Each of us savored every bite when we opened our presents that morning.
The emotions I felt on Christmas Day were a blend of happiness that I could help my mother, pride that I could contribute to our morning, and a burning desire to know what was possible if we could improve our situation. My mother had already worn a path in her mind fretting over that same desire. She had high expectations for us that involved a far better education than the eight grades she completed. In the meantime, that small paper route provided big returns that I believe helped shape the leader I am today.
Consistency is everything
Consistency is something that started with the paper route and sticks with me to this day. I never missed delivering the news in the two years that I threw papers. Consistency is a powerful word that bundles so many other admirable qualities, such as dependability and credibility. Growing up, the paper was your primary source of information, so I learned at a very young age that people were counting on me! Winters can get pretty tough in Indiana, and I couldn’t let that get in the way of my route. When walking in the freezing temperatures was too much, my mother would drive me from house to house.
My customers came to appreciate that the paper would always be there. Every day. Today, that get-up-every-morning, rain-or-shine consistency is still a big part of me. Now I’m hardwired for dependability. You know exactly what you’re going to get if you work with me. I focus on being a leader of constancy—you’ll experience that I’m fair, tough, demanding, and someone who likes to make work fun. When you give people consistency, you empower others to act with confidence and improve overall performance. Employees can focus their energies on work without having to worry about calibrating to their leader’s shifting patterns or moods.
How you treat people matters
Eleven-year-olds often hang out with other kids who live nearby. With a paper route, I walked through several neighborhoods every day. Poor, middle class, black, and white. I treated every customer with the same great service because that’s the way I wanted to be treated. My mother taught me that you never say, “I’m going to give better service to this family over that one.” It was a great introduction to race relations.
As special counsel to the CEO at Comcast Cable, one of my focus areas is diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can bet that those formative years of providing every family with excellent service—no matter their background or neighborhood—is something that translates to the culture we’re cultivating at Comcast. Eight in ten people will quit if they don’t feel appreciated. People want to be treated like people, and when you treat them consistently with appreciation and dignity, they’ll move mountains for each other and your collective purpose.
Lifelong learning is your greatest multiplier
Having a paper route established truly helpful habits that have aided me in sustaining a focus on learning. While you’re folding dozens of papers every day, a headline catches your attention, and you want to know more. That curiosity prompted me to keep learning. Reading the newspaper every morning is something I still do. In fact, if for some reason I don’t get the paper, I feel off that day. Now I’ve become one of the customers I talked about!
During my two-year stint as a paperboy, my day started at 5 a.m. to fold papers and bag them during the winter. Then I would deliver them from 6 to 7:30 a.m. and get to school by 8 a.m. My morning routine during those two years gave me an appreciation for getting a lot done before my day at school started. I’m a morning person, thanks to my eleven-year-old self, and today, I love to wake up and use that time for reflection and daily preparation. That time is often when I learn something new about myself, a current event, or a given situation.
“Successful leaders keep their minds open to new things because they know that no matter how high their level of mastery, there is always more to discover,” reports Harvard Business Review in its management book collection. Make time in your daily routine for reflection and develop habits that nurture your curiosity. If you treat life like a learning lab, there’s no limit to your personal growth.
Two years of delivering papers was fantastic preparation for the days (and years) ahead as I finished middle school and set my sights on bigger responsibilities … and jobs that weren’t affected by weather. I often marvel at how much that paper route shaped me as a leader today. It’s a valuable lesson in maintaining an open mind and attitude toward new experiences. You never know when a customer interaction, a new project, or your reason for getting up in the morning are going to change your life and reaffirm your why. Be ready for and receptive to those opportunities. They exist if you’re willing to look for them.
Live your why,
Last month, I had the joy and privilege of sharing my story at the ACE Vision Summit, an organization supporting a rising generation of students.
Now, I’m looking for more opportunities to give back to others. If you know an organization that would benefit from my message of uncompromising determination and resiliency, please put us in touch. You can contact me using my website’s contact form.