My very first non-minimum wage job was back in college. For 12 months I was the “Litter Czar” of Piqua, Ohio. That wasn’t my real title, but that’s what my friends called me. I managed a grant for a litter prevention and recycling program for the city.
This was my first taste of local government management. Eventually I would finish my business and graduate degrees in public administration and work my way up the career path to become a city manager. But, in Piqua, Ohio, I started out as the Litter Czar.
There are many leadership lessons I could share about that first experience working for the City of Piqua. I could talk about intentionally creating opportunities for young leaders. I could talk about how my first office was in the back of the building in a closet — I had to start from the bottom and work my way up in local government.
Today, though, I want to tell you about my boss, Tom Zechman. Tom was in charge of the engineering and public works department for the city. He had many responsibilities for managing people and public improvement projects. He was a busy man, but never too busy for me.
Tom is a quality leader. He has a sharp mind. He knows how to get things done through his team. The city accomplished a number of significant projects during his tenure.
That said, I know this to be true–if you were to research the annals of history in the fair city of Piqua, Ohio, you would find no mention of my 12-month stint as the Litter Czar. Yet, Tom always had time for me.
I can’t recall the specifics of the crisis litter prevention and recycling decisions I had to make in those days, but I do remember that Tom’s door was always open. It didn’t matter what he was doing, he would stop and give me his full attention. And, even though my trashy conundrums were low priority for him, Tom would patiently help me figure out my next steps without making the decisions for me.
It was the first example of working for a servant leader I had ever encountered. It was the first instance I had experienced of being empowered. It was the first opportunity I had to be mentored as a leader.
People often ask me how to take steps in their leadership. If you’re serious about that, you need to find a Tom Zechman. You need to get a job working for a leader who will model servant leadership. The job isn’t what’s important. Serving under a servant leader is what’s important.
Then, when you probably don’t think you’re ready to mentor someone else because you’re still learning yourself, you have to hire the young punk who is just getting started in leadership and life. Set him or her up in the closet office. Give them grunt work, but also give them your time.
Everyone needs a Tom Zechman in their life. And everyone needs a Litter Czar too.