Sometimes life and leadership lessons come not from elite schools or expensive seminars, but from right around the corner.

I’ve been a practicing lawyer for more than three decades, and have enjoyed some degree of success. I’ve handled multi million dollar transactions and tried cases through my state’s Supreme Court, and through the federal appeals process to the level just below the United States Supreme Court. And I was lead counsel on published decisions concerning legal breakthroughs in commercial and constitutional law.  I’ve been an Assistant General Counsel to major banks, and General Counsel to finance companies.

But if you asked me to point to one defining job or experience that shaped my life and character more than any other, I’d say it was my very first job at the age of fourteen.

CLARENCE AND CHRIS COME TO AMERICA

Clarence and Chris immigrated to the United States from Italy in the 1950’s as young newlyweds. What drew them to the Detroit, Michigan area is unknown to me. You’d think it was the auto industry, but that had nothing to do with it. Whatever it was, I’m grateful for it.

THE VILLAGE MARKET

They opened a small grocery store in Taylor, a blue collar suburb of Detroit, home to legions of factory and automotive workers.

At dawn on Saturday mornings, Clarence would take his station wagon (a classic Buick with wood panels-a “Woody”) to Detroit’s Eastern Market, where local farmers would fill the stalls with their fresh meat and produce.

By mid-morning Clarence would arrive at his little store (The Village Market), with the Woody stuffed with inventory for the upcoming week. If you were unlucky enough to be working Saturday mornings as one of the store clerks, as I often was, you were in for a lot of work, emptying the Woody and placing its contents on the shelves and coolers, and in the meat locker, all under the watchful eyes of Clarence and Chris.

The Village Market just happened to be at the corner of the street I lived on. I often went there with my little friends to get “penny candy” in exchange for pop bottle returns. When I turned 14 and was old enough to be hired to work part time, I applied to be a store clerk.

I still remember the interview, with Chris.

“Are you honest?”

“Are you willing to work hard?”

“Do you love your parents?”

A yes to all three, while Chris stared into my eyes, got me the job, starting at $1.15 per hour, with a 10 cent increase if I made it through probation.

I spent the next three years working for Chris and Clarence, and came to love and respect them.

Why?

Well, for a number of reasons, I think, but two come to mind right now.

First and foremost, I really believed they truly cared about me. Maybe even loved me.

Second, they expected a lot. Honesty first. Then punctuality. Then hard work. It felt good and made me proud to meet those expectations.

 

“THINK OF US”

There came a time in our careers at the Village Market where a few of us had been working there long enough that Clarence and Chris would entrust the store to us for short periods of time, sometimes even longer (but under the supervision of a relative) when they took a rare vacation. On these occasions Chris or Clarence would give us a little pep talk, about the importance of keeping up the store, treating customers properly, etc.

They’d always finish by saying “think of us,” which of course was intended to be planted in the subconscious mind of a teenage boy, where it would reemerge whenever he was tempted to be…a teenage boy.

And it worked. I can honestly say I acted the same at work when they weren’t there as when they were, except for some silliness now and then, but that always occurred when Bob, one of their sons, was in charge and encouraged it!

“Think of us.” Try replacing “us” with your parents, spouse, God, or whomever. Not a bad device for building and maintaining good habits, behavior, and character.

Thank you, Clarence and Chris.

Dave

P.S. What about you? Is there one person or job that really shaped your character? Share in the Comments below.

Dave

Dave has been a practicing lawyer for 30+ years, from inside and general counsel, to private practice.
He maintains a private practice as well as a consulting and copywriting business focused on professional services firms.
You can also find him on LinkedIn