What do actress Andie MacDowell, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and comedian Jay Leno all have in common? They all once worked at fast-food chain McDonald's.
Despite the punch lines surrounding so-called dead-end jobs at fast-food restaurants, working at McDonald's has been the launching point for many a successful career.
McDonald's employees learn a lot more than how to flip burgers and work the deep fryer, said Cody Teets, a 32-year McDonald's veteran and author of the new book, "Golden Opportunity: Remarkable Careers that Began at McDonald's" (Cider Mill Press, 2012). Teets started working at McDonald's when she was 16 and today is responsible for 800 McDonald's restaurants as vice president and general manager of the company's Rocky Mountain region. Teets said there are plenty of opportunities for learning life lessons while working in the shadow of the golden arches.
In the book, Teets said that, since the chain's founding in 1955, more than 20 million Americans have earned their first paychecks as McDonald's employees. Every year, that number grows by another 400,000, Teets said.
"I was one of those when I started my career at McDonald’s three decades ago. I stayed with the company, but was always curious about the majority of young people who stay a year or less and go on to careers in other fields," she said.
For her book, Teets interviewed 43 other McDonald's veterans and asked them to identify the lessons they learned while working at McDonald's. Five major lessons emerged:
No task is beneath you. All honest work is noble, Teets said. "In a well-run restaurant, every member of the crew has to take responsibility for his or her job, to pitch in without being asked when someone else needs help or a task needs doing, even if it’s scrubbing the toilets," she said. "McDonald's founder Ray Kroc was famous for dropping in on a restaurant, driving [up in] his Cadillac, dressed in his business suit and gold watch, and then asking for a mop so he could clean up some spilled mustard," Teets said.
She went on to describe how L.A. Dodgers' second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. said his experience on a McDonald's crew taught him the value of teamwork. Hairston told Teets he felt pressure not to slack off because the other crew members relied on him.
Challenge yourself to master new skills. No matter how basic the task, you should take pride in what you do, Teets said. "When Andie MacDowell worked in a restaurant in Gaffney, S.C., she discovered she was good at running the register and counting change. She became so conscientious about getting it right every time that she found herself anxiously counting change in her dreams, Teets said.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recalled how proud he was that he could crack 300 eggs into a bowl with one hand. As Teets said, every job can teach you something about yourself, even if it’s just to learn what you don't like.
"More often, people discover new strengths," Teets said. She cites McDonald's U.S. CEO Jan Fields, who overcame shyness when she had to work the front register, discovering she had a gift for making people feel
Roll with the punches. Working at McDonald's or any fast-paced business teaches employees to stay focused under pressure, Teets said.
"Mike Grice is a decorated Marine Corps lieutenant colonel whose first real job off the family ranch was at a McDonald's in Colorado,” she said. “During lunch and dinner rushes, the crew had to work together to keep things moving and customers happy. There were no timeouts. When there were glitches, the crew couldn't just close the doors and fix the problems. What Grice learned about being an effective decision-maker under stress served him well during his multiple tours of duty in the Middle East.” In any enterprise, there will always be a crisis, Teets said. Successful leaders tend to be individuals who can solve problems without panicking and creating new ones.
Learn from the successes of others. Teets interviewed a number of immigrants and minorities who eventually opened McDonald’s franchises of their own.
"All of them did it by following the examples of their supervisors, managers and restaurant owners," said Teets.
"NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao remembers being impressed by how well organized everything was and how the restaurant seemed to work like a well-oiled machine," Teets said. She added that Chiao appreciated those lessons after becoming an engineer and a pilot.
Drew Nieporent, a successful New York restaurateur who owns Tribeca Grill with actor Robert DeNiro, still uses the lessons he learned while working at McDonald's, even as he’s moved on to gourmet restaurants, Teets discovered.
"As a current restaurant owner," he said, "seeing McDonald's on the resumes of applicants would be a huge plus."
How to deal with people. Being a good leader means knowing what makes each person tick, Teets said. It means “learning that each person has his or her own strengths and weaknesses and the way to get the most from others is to play to their strengths," she said. Teets added that former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who worked his way through college at a McDonald's, said a big part of his job was finding different ways to help each employee succeed.
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