Deans’ First Jobs: From Washing Dishes To Selling Hot Dogs

Business school isn’t the first place where students encounter vogue business models. Chances are, the people who’ve mastered their fundamentals aren’t star CEOs, either.

That was a takeaway that Matthew J. Slaughter, dean of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, absorbed in high school and college. Back then, Slaughter wasn’t a decorated teacher and celebrated expert on globalization and technology. Instead, he was handing out putters and cleaning up after customers at the Lilli Putt Miniature Golf Course in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Sound like your typical brain dead summer job? Not if you were watching as closely as Slaughter was. Instead, he enjoyed a front row seat every day to how empathetic design thinking is practiced thanks to the example by Ernie Pivec, the course’s owner.

Dean Matthew Slaughter

“He would drive to the course in the mid-afternoon, in advance of the evening high times, and walk the course with us staff all from the perspective of a typical customer,” Slaughter reminisces. “Ernie forced us all to put on our empathy glasses. He showed us slips and misses in our work that we would then see clear as day when looking from a different perspective. Here is one example I remember vividly: Ernie pointed out that if play was slow due to busy business, children would often fish around in the trash cans near the tee boxes—so we saw the need to scrub every one of those 18 small green trash buckets to operating-room standards.”

Pivec’s exacting standards and customer-centric mission left quite an impression on Slaughter.

Thirty years later, he believes that Pivec would feel quite at home at Tuck. “When I think about Tuck’s immersive community and values, I see many parallels to the community Ernie created at Lilli Putt,” Slaughter shares.

FROM PICKING TOBACCO TO DRESSING UP AS CHESTER CHEETAH

For many MBAs, deans can be intimidating figures, with 18 page CVs and rolodexes that boast business royalty. Before they became academic rock stars, they held the same thankless jobs as everyone else. Duke’s William Boulding was so impressive in his first job that he earned a promotion after his first day…to head dishwasher. Stanford’s Jonathan Levin was first introduced to creative destruction in his boyhood paper route. Darden’s Scott Beardsley once shoveled sidewalks and delivered pizzas to make a living. Think that’s rough? Try being the University of Texas’ Jay Hartzell, who started work each day at 4:00 a.m. as a Frito-Lay route salesperson — where he’d occasionally don his Chester Cheetah costume.

In the process, they learned some hard lessons. In his first management job, the University of Toronto’s Tiff Macklem discovered that he was part of the reason why his team was underperforming. He’s lucky. Fresh out of college, Notre Dame’s Roger Huang once doled out some horrible business advice…that was used by his father’s company. However, such adversity also brought clarity and purpose to these future deans. Working at 2:00 a.m. on a PowerPoint for a consulting client, Kellogg’s Sally Blount came to an epiphany: She needed to find a mission that mattered to her. After farming the torrid and toxic tobacco fields, the University of North Carolina’s Doug Shackelford appreciates the comforts that he enjoys. “Any problem I have doesn’t merit complaining about,” he cracks. “Life is pretty sweet.”

This spring, Poets&Quants reached out to the deans of leading business schools to ask this question: What was your first “real” job in business and what did you learn from it?” 19 deans, from programs ranging from Wharton to the University of California-Berkeley responded. Looking for a good cocktail party icebreaker? Here are some of the formative work experiences that shaped today’s top deans.

Dean Sally Blount

“My first “real” job was with the Boston Consulting Group. Consulting is a great starting point for almost any career.  You learn so many skills and see so many different businesses. I can still construct a supply curve for an industry real-time and write a killer PowerPoint deck.  But while it’s a great training ground, it isn’t the right career choice for everybody.

My moment of truth came at about 2 a.m. one morning. I was still in the office working on a presentation for a food client. As I sat there, I suddenly I realized that I didn’t really care about whether this company grew its market share within the U.S. pasta industry over the next two years or not.  Now I was being paid to care, so I finished the deck, but deep down, I realized that this work wasn’t for me. That experience helped me begin to understand that I’m driven more by mission than by status or money.

I’ve since come to believe that for most people, your 20’s should not be a time where you try to find your bliss at work, but about landing the biggest, boldest stretch assignments that you can get. That way you can grow as much as possible as a professional, while beginning to discover who you are meant to be as an adult.”
– Sally Blount, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

 

Dean Mark Taylor

“During my teenage years in England, I used to sell hot dogs on the weekend from a street cart outside pubs and outside the local stadium during soccer matches. I worked on a commission of twenty percent of the gross takings, but I figured out that the overall margin was probably two or three times that. I was always among the top sellers, so I tried to negotiate a pay raise with my employer but they did not want to pay me more because they would have had to pay all of the other hot dog sellers more. Quite rightly, they pointed out that while I was selling more on average, I was getting twenty percent of that extra amount, so I was already being rewarded for exceptional performance.

Nevertheless, perhaps a little arrogantly, I accepted a job with higher commission at a new, rival company. However, the new market entrant did not have the top locations for their carts and overall sales were lower, leading to a lower sales commission. I was forced to go back to my original employer and ask for my old job back. However, when I did, I suggested that I could train some of the other sales people and help with accounting, to save the owner time at the end of a shift. My business takeaways from this experience were numerous; in fact, it probably pushed me into a career in business and finance.”
– Mark P. Taylor, Washington University (Olin)

* Go to next page for the first “real” jobs from deans at Wharton, Rice, Michigan, Virginia, and Vanderbilt.