The year is 2003. I’m a kid in my early 20s, and I’ve just been hired as a receptionist at a medical devices company called Physio-Control. I’m so happy to be there that I can’t stop smiling at everyone who enters the building. Whether they’re the janitor or our most important client’s VP, they’re getting a big smile as soon as the door opens. Apparently people get a kick out of this.
Fast forward to 2023. I’m now established as CEO at my current company, One Beat Medical. Instead of answering phones and greeting visitors, I’m managing dozens of team members and negotiating deals with partners around the world. But a lot of those lessons I learned as a receptionist are still surprisingly relevant.
In fact, I think it’s fair to say I’m a lot better at the job of being a CEO because of my time as a receptionist. There are an astonishing number of similarities between the two roles—for example, you have to do tasks you never thought you’d have to do.
One of my favorite bits of One Beat lore is the Great Microwave Cleaning Incident. To make a long story short, someone decided to heat up a… fragrant lunch in the company kitchen. After they’d finished their meal and left, I happened to be the next person to enter the room. The smell was so overpowering that, by instinct, I found the nearest sponge and detergent, and began scrubbing like my life depended on it.
Word soon spread around the company that the CEO was spending his lunch break cleaning the microwave. As you’d imagine, that bit of gossip was great for morale.
Teams can sense when leaders understand and respect what they do. And while a lot of leaders do a great job of conveying this, there are also a lot who could get better. As illustrated by the example of Tim Gurner—the CEO who caused a media firestorm by suggesting unemployment should rise by 40-50% to discipline workers, and later apologized for his “deeply insensitive” remarks—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
I’d suggest that CEOs who have firsthand experience of what it’s like to start at the bottom are much less likely to make such mistakes. When you’ve worked an entry-level position, you gain a more nuanced understanding of the “guts” of a company. For me, some of the most valuable lessons have been:
- Learning how information travels within an organization
- Understanding the actual time and labor required to complete specific tasks
- Knowing workers’ real attitudes and needs
Let’s examine each of these in a bit more detail.
Learning how information travels within an organization
By necessity, much of a leader’s communication is top-down. Priorities need to be clarified, tasks need to be assigned, and guidance needs to be given. But to make sure these messages reach their intended audiences—and have the intended effects—you need a solid grasp of the communications channels at your disposal.
This is obvious when you think about it. If you’re announcing a big initiative in the company newsletter, but many employees don’t actually read the newsletter, then it’ll be an uphill battle to get buy-in from key players.
Leaders with entry-level experience can avoid this trap, because they develop an evidence-based understanding of how (and where) to reach people. They know, for example, that sometimes it’s more effective to post a flyer in the bathroom than to send an email blast—because they’ve ignored those email blasts themselves in the past.
Personal experience “on the ground” is a great way to resolve many of the communication issues that can hamstring a company.
Understanding the actual time and labor required to complete specific tasks
Every leader has felt the frustration of a project taking longer than expected. Everything looks so simple on paper, and yet week after week, deadlines go whooshing by without being met. From the top, this can appear baffling. How hard can it be to get approval on a budget proposal, or compile a report?
Entry-level experience can give you the answer to these questions. It demystifies the great question of “how does Task X actually get done?” When you’ve been responsible for executing those tasks yourself, you learn how long things take, and how much work goes into completing them—whether that’s obvious to the casual observer or not.
Some seemingly simple parts of a company’s workflow are much more time- and labor-intensive than someone without firsthand experience might think—transferring data from one platform to another is a prime example. Other times, tasks can be much easier than they sound, despite all the fancy jargon used to describe them.
Doing it yourself is the only way to be sure.
Knowing employees’ real attitudes and needs
Even the friendliest CEO is still the CEO, and employees will interact with you accordingly. That can be nice at times—it’s nice to be told that every outfit you wear looks great—but it can also lead to a skewed perception of how your team actually thinks and feels.
The best way to avoid the Oblivious Leader Bubble is to have experience outside of it. When you’ve been in your team members’ shoes, you know what motivates them to do their best work, and what they need to grow. You learn what makes messages from leadership come off as condescending or insincere, and what makes them sound genuine.
You also learn what really makes a difference in the lives of your team members. If your company needs a morale boost, it’s easy to suggest perks like “pizza parties” or “casual Fridays”—but maybe what people really want is the flexibility to bring their kids to the office when school is canceled. This kind of insight can only be gained from talking to people, and people tend to talk a lot more honestly among people they consider their peers.
And ultimately, this is the real reason why every leader would benefit from having entry-level experience: it shows each person in the organization that you’re a team player, and you’ve faced the same challenges they have. It shows that you’re willing to put in the work—and that the work pays off.