On my 16th birthday, I landed my first job that actually gave me a paycheck.  My official title: Dishwasher — $2.35 an hour was my pay.

After a few weeks of scraping never-ending pieces of cooked fish skin off of metal plates,  hands shriveling in over-sized rubber gloves, and leaving each  night with an odor I just couldn’t quite shake, I decided to call into work and say I was sick.

The next day, I was scheduled for the night shift.  I called in sick again.  Not quite getting the whole responsibility thing, I did the same thing for a third time the following day.

I was outside shooting baskets, dreaming I was an NBA star, when I heard the phone ring.  I ran into the house and picked up the phone.  Without a breath left I said, “Hello, this is the Brennans.”

On the other end of the line, much to my dismay, was my manager. I felt my heart  sink as he said, “Mike, I understand you have called in sick today.”

“Uhm, yeah I did,” I said in between short breaths.

“Just checking on you. What kind of bug you dealing with?” he asked.

“Well, I ….uhm…you see….I….uhm,” I said never quite finding my footing to respond.

“Interesting, you don’t sound sick,” he replied.

“Listen Mike. This is what I want you to do.  Take tonight off, but I want you to come in tomorrow and meet with me.  I have one question I want you to answer: What kind of employee do you want to be?”

That question hit me like a locomotive running through my head.  What kind of employee did I want to be?  I never thought about it.  I was a kid who picked up a job to pay for his 1976 Mustang II and found himself goofing off.  I knew I didn’t want to be an employee who was identified as a slacker.  As a no show.  As a person who wasn’t a team player.  The more I thought about it, I wanted to be the employee they most respected for my hard work, determination and ability to be part of the team.

I walked into his tiny office right outside of the dish washing machine and sat down. His steel desk separated the two of us as his big round eyes and ruddy face looked directly at me and said, “So what did you decide?”

“I want to be the best employee you ever had,” I said with a bit of shame.

“Are you sure?”

“I am positive.”

“Then get your apron and gloves on and go show me what that looks like.”

I started to work as if I was the owner. That is, I began to pay attention to not just my job, but everyone else’s.  I continued on that path and won the employee of the month award.  I remember the picture of me that hung over the entryway into the restaurant with a big sign over it: “Employee of the Month — Michael J. Brennan.” At age 16, that was one of my proudest achievements.

I was soon promoted to one of my all time favorite jobs — Food Prep and got a 30 cents an hour raise.   I learned at a young age how to work with knives,  prepare food and be part of team.  To this day, working with food is one of my lifelong passions.

Most importantly, I learned to be intentional about my approach to work.  My manager did me a big favor by not firing me on the spot.  He had every right to, but instead, he asked me to make my own decision and set my own bar of excellence. Now, some 30-plus years later, I find myself asking others that very simple question: What kind of employee do you want to be?

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