My First Job: Minimum Wage, Maximum Value

By Michelle Rhee (CEO, StudentsFirst)

It was the summer before my senior year of high school. I got a job waitressing at Grumpy’s, a deli near downtown Toledo.

The restaurant — owned and managed by Jeff Horn and his wife, Connie — was aptly named. Jeff was a little bit like the iconic Soup Nazi from Seinfeld: great at making to-die-for food, not so great at dealing gently with people.

When he wasn’t overseeing the creation of crisp salads or oozing grilled cheese sandwiches, he was often doing one of two things: yelling at customers, or firing workers.

Jeff demanded perfection, and anything less was met with swift and final justice.

15 minutes late to work? You’re fired.

Write down the wrong order? See ya later.

Cook a burger well-done that the customer wanted rare? That was the last burger you’d be flipping.

Jeff started that summer with about 20 employees; by the end, I was one of only two left. My big secret: I kept my head down and my mouth shut, and did my job. In those three months, I learned the most fundamental ingredient to success and survival in the workplace, and in life: working your butt off.

That was just one of many lessons I learned at my first job.

A few years later, when I was in college, Jeff and Connie opened another Grumpy’s and asked me to manage it during the summer. It was my first real experience in a supervisory role, and what made it especially challenging was that I was in charge of people around my own age.

Under different circumstances, I likely would have been good friends with many of the other employees. But in order to be effective, I had to assert authority and not be overly concerned with being liked.

My managerial skills were put to the test one scorching summer day. The garbage cans were full, and because of the heat were producing a particularly horrifying smell. I asked four of the girls to empty and clean them. One of the girls, who appeared to be the group’s leader, adamantly refused.

Connie, who was there that day, asked me what I was going to do.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “What should I do?”

“Fire her,” Connie told me. “You have to send a message.”

It was nerve-wracking, but I knew I could not project weakness. So I sent the girl packing. Then I looked at the others. “Anyone else have a problem?” I asked. They got the message, and an hour later those trashcans were sparkling clean—well, as close to sparkling as trashcans can be.

Grumpy’s had taught me something else: it never feels good, but sometimes you need to make tough decisions, including letting people go.

I remembered that lesson years later when I became head of the Washington, D.C. public school system, one of the most bloated, dysfunctional and low-performing districts in the nation.

I had to make a number of difficult calls, including closing and consolidating under-enrolled schools, and laying off ineffective and excessive central office workers. It wasn’t easy, but those decisions helped create enough efficiencies and savings to allow us to put an art and music teacher, a librarian, a nurse and a counselor in every single school — which hadn’t happened in years. And you better believe I’m proud that those actions, along with other reforms, have helped lead to a steady rise in achievement for D.C. students, including historic gains on the 2013 National Report Card (NAEP) released last week.

That first summer at Grumpy’s, I earned the minimum wage — $3.35 in 1988. But the value of my first job went far beyond dollars and cents. And for that I am grateful to Jeff and Connie Horn.

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