What did you dream of being on the playground?

I was in a meeting a few weeks back and one of our clients asked me if I grew up dreaming of becoming a customer service rep, retail associate, or for that matter, sitting behind a desk all day processing paper. Admittedly I was floored by his question, because of course I did not grow up dreaming of those jobs or the one I have today; playing football for the Baltimore Colts was my initial desire. That dream morphed for sure but never did wind up in the place I am today. And I imagine that is likely the same story for you. So maybe you are wondering why this question is important and how does it impact you? In the next few paragraphs I will do my best to answer that question, as I am now convinced the impact goes well beyond the depression of realizing that your dream job is no longer within your grasp.

I always find it best when telling a story to walk in the other person’s shoes, so as you are reading this article, imagine that you are that kid growing up who always wanted to be a doctor, yet today is your first day as a retail store associate. While you may be happy to have work and the opportunity to receive a paycheck, there is likely a voice in your subconscious saying, “I can’t believe I wound up here.” As the day begins, you are whisked away to the back office in order to begin your training/on-boarding program, which will likely be your home for the next few days at a minimum. The first step in the process is to fill out paperwork, a necessary evil, but next up on the list is likely a video or web training class on the history of the company you are joining, followed by a series of non-interactive training sessions introducing you to everything from the cash register to the closing procedure. This process will go on and on until you complete all your courses and get a passing score, all with the goal of getting you to the sales floor.

So do you now have the picture in your head of what it is like to be a retail sales associate and how your first few days at the new job are likely to go? Can you feel the energy and excitement? Are you looking forward to coming back to work? I imagine the answer to this question is “NO,” and maybe that’s part of the reason few people would ever grow up dreaming of being a retail sales rep!

We as professionals in training or leadership need to recognize this fact, and adjust the way we interact with our new employees accordingly. Our job is to not only educate, but also inspire people to drive towards achieving their own goals alongside the company’s goals. According to an article recently published in Bloomberg, there are over 3 million jobs that remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers. So what if instead of just on-boarding our new employees, we provide them with a pathway to growth beyond being the store manager? What if we offer them training on new skills and let them learn about all the opportunities within their reach for the future, provided they succeed in their current role? What if, instead of spending time in the back-room, we let them learn on the showroom floor and get training via short interactive programs on their smart phone? What if, simply for a moment, we walked in their shoes instead of our own? What would the outcome be, and how different might those first few days on the job be?

I know I don’t have all the answers, but when my client asked me if I dreamed of being a retail associate on the playground, it stopped me in my tracks and helped me realize we have an opportunity to make an impact in people’s lives. So the new question is: what are we really doing about it?