The Transformational Boss

“We can do no great things – -only small things with great love.” – Mother Theresa

Throughout my career, I’ve always sought to work for good – great – bosses. Even the most mundane job can be transformational if you’re working for the right person, and the opposite holds true, as well. A good boss will inspire you to do better than you think is possible; a great boss can change the course of your life.

When I was 17 years old and in desperate need of a new after-school job, I did what my immigrant parents taught me to do. I went door-to-door to each storefront on a major commercial strip in my hometown of Briarwood, N.Y. I asked each owner if they were hiring and if they could keep me in mind for any open positions. A month later, I received a call from the local pharmacy that had an open position for a cashier, but they had one requirement: the candidate needed to aspire to become a pharmacist. I did what any high school student in need of cash and lacking any real future goals would do – I decided that pharmacy was a good career choice.

At the time, I had put very little thought into my college and career aspirations. I was actually somewhat relieved that by working in the pharmacy, my path to becoming a pharmacist would be laid out. It didn’t occur to me that science was my least favorite subject and that I was failing chemistry.

I was the head cashier and in charge of ordering merchandise and restocking the shelves. However, more than that, I had become the “head of hospitality.” I had learned from my mother, a hairdresser, that when women come to get their hair done, they were seeking more than a new hair cute or dye job. Instead, they were looking for an hour of reprieve from their lives. Some wanted to experience it in silence with the latest magazines and others wanted to talk endlessly about everything. Your job as a hair dresser was to comply. Women should walk out feeling physically and emotionally recharged.

And so is the case when people came to our drugstore. Some people were very sick. I knew immediately by their prescriptions. While they waited for their drugs, I would bring them water, cookies, or magazines. Some people regularly came in to purchase scratch-off tickets; we would spend time talking until one of my bosses would usually yell for me to come to the back of the store to help with the growing checkout line. We had immigrant women come in who needed hygiene products, but were too embarrassed to ask. I had learned to spot them out from the moment they entered the pharmacy and would discreetly guide them to the right section. And, then we had the regular entourage of teenage girls, who were hysterical because they thought they were pregnant. We would talk about the “What ifs?”

On a daily basis, one of the pharmacists would have me try to decipher the doctor’s handwriting, then input prescriptions into some archaic system, locate the drugs on the shelves, and dispense the number needed (I’m sure this was probably illegal and definitely a bad idea). They would ask me how I was doing in chemistry and where I was applying to college – “St. John’s has a great five-year program.” However, as the months progressed, they asked me for less and less help behind the “drug counter.” I was relieved. I hated anything that had to do with counting pills and compounding medications. I had applied and gotten accepted to St. John’s, though.

One day, the pharmacist said to me, “I don’t think this is for you?” Even though I knew it, I felt like a failure.

He continued, “You like to be with the people. Listen to their stories. Make them comfortable. Make this pharmacy a happy place. We appreciate and need that, but other fields, probably need you more. You understand?”

I did. And that was the end of my aspiration to become a pharmacist. I worked there for several more years and saw many interns and pharmacy protégées make their way through that place and they were nothing like me. They were science geeks that drooled over drug discoveries and medicinal chemistry. And I did go to St. John’s and studied journalism and communication.

My old boss still runs the local pharmacy. He loves what he does so much that he won’t retire. I try to visit when I’m in my old neighborhood and we laugh about the old days. He claims that he knew pretty quickly I would never become a pharmacist, but says it worked out better.

“I really needed someone to deal with all those people who were waiting – no one likes to wait – and you kept them busy. And you – you needed to find out what you were good at and, fortunately for both of us, it had nothing to do with what was behind that counter.”

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