Out of the Closet
“How do you define a secret? When one person knows it.”
Right now, I know something you don’t. I got fired, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me! I—Harvey Mackay, who has been sharkproofing the world against job loss with over 10 million books sold since 1988—was fired. I’m now out of the closet. It wasn’t that I tried to hide a black spot on my career. It was that I didn’t think the whole deal was all that important. Last year I thought about it further. And then I realized it was important. Not maybe the firing itself, but the lessons I learned as a result of it. It literally changed my life. But it was embarrassing. So I had dodged giving it any significance for more than half a century.
Here’s the straight story. My father, Jack Mackay, was the Associated Press correspondent in St. Paul, Minnesota. He virtually had only one job his entire life . . . and yes, he stayed around for thirty-five years to collect his gold watch. He was the best of the best. He took a backseat to no one, especially when it came to delivering scoops . . . the lifeline of a reporter.
Growing up as a kid, I came from modest beginnings, and my father was insistent there was no substitute for working odd jobs during summer vacations and Christmas holidays. I had a myriad of short stints from setting pins at a bowling alley to delivering newspapers to working at a driving range.
It was summer vacation my junior year in high school and I had just landed a neat job at a downtown St. Paul men’s clothing store . . . and, of course, my father with his connections got me the job.
Now, peddling pants, socks, underwear, ties, hankies, and occasionally a shirt or two may not sound like the most glamorous position in the world . . . but in retrospect, it was a great gig. At a young age, I had an opportunity to learn about business . . . having a boss to report to . . . showing up for work on time . . . handling money and credit . . . understanding how customers shop . . . and, learning a little about the retail clothing industry. Overnight, I was plying the tricks of the retail trade. My boss, Chris, hammered these principles into my brain bank:
1)Before you could count to “one-Mississippi,” you greeted a customer at the front door with a “million-dollar, megawatt smile” and said “Howdy . . . may I help you!” The “howdy” was a hammy slice of creativity in those days because the store I worked at was Howard’s and their theme was “Howdy from Howard’s.” No way would that advertising theme win first place in the 2004 Cleo Awards!
2)Never put more than three ties on the counter . . . it will only confuse the customer.
3)Always, and I mean always, play to the spouse (female). She will make the buying decision 99 percent of the time.
4)Once you get the customer to try on the pants, consider it a done deal.
5)Never ring up a sale without asking: “What else do you have in mind?” and “Would you like me to introduce you to our best suit salesman?”
6)Walk the customer to the front door and sometimes even out onto Wabasha Street and look ’em in the eye . . . say “Thanks!” . . . and then say: “Be sure and bring it back if you are not happy with it.”
7)Never, never, never start to lock up if a customer misses closing time by a few minutes.
8)And, don’t come to work in competitor’s clothes, even if you are just a young kid peddling men’s accessories.
The above eight points are the short list because my memory is what I forget with, and—be kind—it was many decades ago. Looking back, probably the greatest plus of the job was, whether I realized it or not, I was polishing my sales skills at a very early age.
When you are young, footloose, and fancy-free, you don’t have a care in the world. You are always in the “comfort zone.” You don’t quite realize the responsibility of holding down a legitimate job. Better said, you don’t realize the importance of holding down a job legitimately.
Because my dad paved the way for me, I never really appreciated that there were many kids clamoring for a sweetheart summer job like I had. This sugarcoated plum fell right into my lap.
Here is where it gets a little embarrassing. I didn’t get this job due to my instant mastery of the eight commandments of selling. I got it because of my dad. He was not only a cus- tomer of the store, but was very good friends with the owner and many of the salespeople. The buzz on me was to treat Harvey like “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”
They never disciplined me if I took extra minutes on my lunch hour, never chastised me for being a few minutes late, nor for leaving a few minutes early on occasion.
You know the old story, give him an inch and he’ll take a mile! . . . well, that was Harvey in spades.
In retrospect, I am positive all these little pinpricks added up and there was probably a whispering campaign going on behind my back. The Lord became a Louse. Lords generally do in our democratic land. No doubt the buzz became a buzz saw about this unappreciative, spoiled brat whose daddy knew the owner. And that saw was relentlessly whirring toward the back of my neck.
The deal breaker came when I started to ask for days off. Why? I dreamed of becoming another Ben Hogan and had had lots of success on the golf links playing for good ole St. Paul Central High School. I also set my goal that summer to become the Minnesota State High School Golf Champion the following year. As it happened, I three-putted the 72nd hole to miss by one stroke. The sad news is that my pro-sports dream was a delusion. Although I went on to play golf for the University of Minnesota, I would never become a professional golfer. Reason? Simple. If you grow up in Minnesota, the number of golf-playing days you have in any given year is radically less than what your counterparts in Arizona or Florida have. It didn’t take my golf coach to point this out to me. It was my mother.
But back to Howard’s Men’s Store. First it was leaving an hour early . . . then several hours early . . . then half days early . . . and then the whole enchilada . . . asking for a whole day off to play in this “big” golf tournament.
I really got blindsided because most of my colleagues in the store played golf. I figured they’d be happy and proud to see my name in the paper and where I finished in the tournament the previous day.
Wrong! Just the opposite!
How could I be so dumb?
How could I be so naïve?
The rest is history. The management, of course, never called me in. They went directly to my dad and said, “Too many distractions . . . too many favors . . . too many special requests . . . we can’t rely on your son. He is a nice kid, but . . . !”
To say I was devastated was an understatement. There were very few times my father ever raised his voice at me while growing up. But his words ring out loud and clear to me this very day.
“Disappointed . . . let me down . . . let yourself down . . . look what will happen to your name and reputation around town when the word finally gets out . . . You will never work at Howard’s Men’s Store again.”
My dad made me—no forced me—to write a letter of apology in my own words . . . not his.
They say you are supposed to learn from your mistakes, and wow did I ever. Being fired and unwanted, especially when you know it’s 100 percent your own fault, is not easy to take. . . . I shamed my family and myself.
What exactly did I learn from my train wreck at Howard’s? Eight indelible rules that can help you not get fired from a cushy part-time job . . . and more importantly, can help you succeed in a job you care about.
1)When a relative or well-connected friend lands you a job, remember that you did not get that spot on your merits. No matter what anyone tells you in a moment of kindness, don’t forget you are there because someone else has pulled strings.
2)Insist that you hump racks on the sales floor and clean out the back storage room. Dig into the dirty work and be part of the gang—or you are begging your co-workers to gang up on you.
3)Look for a chance to stay a few minutes late or come early, especially when you can help a co-worker out. Particularly when that co-worker has a family and you are young and single.
4)Realize that getting the job is not the done deal. Keeping the job every day is doing the deal.
5)Always find a friend early on . . . one you can trust. Somebody you can ask for frank input: What do people here really think about me?
6)Even if it’s a temporary or part-time job, never let the people around you feel that your work is an extracurricular activity. When you make colleagues feel that your extracurricular activities are more important than their work, you insult them.
7)Never, never, never ask for days off in a temporary job. If you are invited to work holidays or summers, chances are it’s so regular employees can enjoy some time off.
8)Realize that the person you are likeliest to hurt by slacking off is not your employer . . . not yourself . . . but the person who stuck his or her neck out and packaged the cushy deal for you in the first place. Not only can this be painfully embarrassing, it can substantially short-circuit any chance for you getting any future cushions.
Luckily I got these messages loud and clear. I vowed never, ever to let this happen again. Believe me, at every single subsequent job I got through the rest of high school and four years of college, I minded my p’s and q’s and worked my guts out to do the best I could.
Being fired was invaluable “tuition” in the school of hard knocks. I will be eternally glad it happened.
It was an expensive lesson.
It was a hurtful lesson.
It was an embarrassing lesson.
I want every reader of this book to get the message . . . especially the younger set. Don’t ever let this happen to you. Why? Because life has many hard lessons. Do yourself a favor and try to learn as many of them as you can with the least possible pain. Of course, I was only a raw high school kid with no one counting on my monetary support. I’m not trying to compare my experience to an adult breadwinner whose spouse or children are dependent upon him or her. Looking back, I was lucky to have learned my career lessons, not in kindergarten like the title of the famous book by Robert Fulghum, but while I was still a callow youth in high school.
But the sun did come out again, and guess what?
Two years later, I got virtually the identical job six blocks down the street at Howard’s competitor, and this time I graduated to the Suit, Jacket, and Overcoat Department. I made a bundle in commissions. I fitted corporate purchasing managers into plaid jackets. I sold suits to Minnesota state legislators to whom I would later successfully sell domed stadiums when I became very active in the community. I made friends, some of whom I am lucky enough to have to this very day. Fifteen years later, after I had started my envelope-manufacturing business, my firm was stocking their warehouses ceiling-high with envelopes. None of this would have happened had I not learned my lesson at Howard’s and taken my medicine.
In this book, you will learn about the mean streets of the employment jungle. People who didn’t have a clue and were fired out of the blue. People who saw it coming but couldn’t turn the tidal wave headed at them. People whose companies thought they were engaging in treason. People who were let go and not even given a reason. Some victims were young. Others were nearing their golden years. Still others were at the midlife peak of their careers. The common thread: None of them saw themselves as victims for very long. And that takes spunk.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from We Got Fired! by Harvey Mackay. Copyright © 2004 by Harvey Mackay. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.