Several years ago I found out a certain naivete’ surrounds those new to the work force.

Following high school I began my employment as a mail boy in a large insurance company. Shortly thereafter, I was moved to the print shop running an offset printing press, hole punching and collating papers for in-house manuals, newsletters and memorandums. It didn’t take long to realize the low wage and monotony were breaking my spirit. So off I went to Personnel (there was no such thing as Human Resources back then) to explore how to move my career along.

Even though this meeting occurred more than forty years ago, I remember the day vividly. The Personnel counselor informed me of the importance of a formal education. I was told that once I committed to grow educationally, the company would take my career objectives more seriously. Plus, the company reimbursed at 50% for all courses and material as long as a passing grade of “C” was maintained. So, I immediately enrolled in two evening classes at the local community college.

The evenings I didn’t have school I worked as a security guard and weigh master at the local farmer’s regional market until midnight. Week-ends were spent working in a men’s clothing store…not so much for the salary…but more for the 35% employee discount. After all, I did need nice clothes to be in an office environment.

Successful completion of my first semester brought an immediate promotion to the claims department. I was excited, nervous, happy, dedicated and ambitious. I was proud to wear a suit and tie even though a suit jacket had to be worn anytime you left your desk. Wow…I felt so professional!

The department manager was slight in stature, bald and in his early sixties. One learned early on that his size was not to be reckoned with. He was extremely intimidating and a “no nonsense” person. There was no question who ran the show. When least expected he would stand in his office doorway and fling a file to the corner of my desk. Of course I would be startled. Feelings of anger were swallowed knowing this position was only a stepping stone before moving on to other positions.

A motivator back then was how clear grade levels and positions were delineated. The grading system went from 3 to 13. Above grade 13 was the officer level. Within each grade were salary ranges from low, medium to high. A positive merit review meant a percentage increase based on that grade’s medium rate. Not bad if you fell in the lower range of a grade level.

In a clerical post you simply had a desk and shared a phone. Another grade increase and you received a company logo desk pen. Another increase earned a side chair, one more you got a chair with arms and finally, your own cubicle. Every grade and the expectations for that grade were clearly laid out in a comprehensive employee manual.

For me having everything explained so clearly was a no brainer. Stay in school, take company sponsored courses, meet company standards, cross my “T’s” and dot my “i’s” and my career path was there waiting for me.

All of this sounds great unless you’re young, not well versed in the business world, overly self confident and impatient. I was all of them.

So early one morning I held my head high and walked into my boss’ office. I quietly shut the door and humbly asked if I could speak with him. I was greeted with a grumble to make it quick. So I went over my brief accomplishments and abruptly dropped, “the bomb”…”may I have a raise?” Calmly my boss rose from his corner desk, came around to meet me face to face. My palms were sweating and my body was trembling. In a fatherly move he stood to my left, took his right arm across my back to my right shoulder and walked me to the office window. He then told me his story back in the 1930’s when he made the same request of his boss. He related how his manager walked him to the window in New York City and asked if he noticed the man with the apple cart on the street below and how would he like to have a cart next to his? In a boyish way I asked what that meant. His response was abrupt and to the point. No raise and if I wasn’t satisfied Then perhaps I should sell apples. I slumped and with tail between my legs went back to work.

Within a couple of months I did receive a two grade promotion and merit increase. This manager, in time, gave me several grade increases and I never had to ask for a raise again.

I started my career two floors below street level within the confines of a nineteen story office building and it ended with my own office on the nineteenth floor. Not bad for a kid who didn’t know where he was going or how to get there.

I will always be grateful to the wonderful mentors I had. I was too naive to realize how to accomplish goals on my own, but I learned there are rules and play books. Stick to the rules and follow the play book and the rest is history.

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