I stood behind the counter, sweat showing through my old Colts hat. To my right, a pizza oven quickly filled. To my left, a salad bar quickly emptied. In front of me stood dozens of hungry students looking for a quick bite before class.
“What’s in the oven, Gringo?!” I heard my boss yell.
“Umm, there are two slices of cheese, a slice of sausage, ummm…”
“AYE AYE AYE! Always know what’s in the oven, Gringo!”
He didn’t know it yet, but my manager and the co-owner of the pizzeria was about to teach me one of the most valuable lessons in efficiency that I’ve ever learned. His name was Alex. He’s a Peruvian immigrant who is by far the best co-worker and boss I’ve ever had. He taught me more about being a productive employee than any college class or internship could, but this lesson was the first.
Always Oven First, Gringo
Alex pretty much exclusively called me Gringo. I like to think that it was a loving nickname that came from a place of respect. In reality, I’m just incredibly white.
Regardless, my first lesson from Alex came in my first week on the job. I was a 16 year old punk who just got his driver’s license and a shiny new job at a local pizza joint. Alex and I were watching the door on a particularly slow Sunday. A couple walks in.
“Hi, How can I help you guys?”
“Yeah, we’d like two slices of cheese pizza and two house salads, but could we get the salads first, please?” the man ordered.
“You got it!” I replied. I immediately start throwing lettuce in two bowls.
“What are you doing, Gringo?” Alex wailed.
“I’m making them their salad.”
“OVEN FIRST, GRINGO! ALWAYS OVEN FIRST!”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Alex had just taught me my first lesson in being a productive employee…
Always Delegate First
This is one of the most important rules I’ve learned about working efficiently. Not only does it work for me, but the most effective teams I’ve ever worked on do a great job of delegating to one another. There are two reasons that this rule is super important.
The Key to Productivity is Having Multiple Projects Going at Once
First and foremost, the oven has nothing to do unless you put something inside. Now, I’m not saying your coworkers have nothing to do until you give something to them, and I’m not saying you should dump all your work on your coworkers.
What I am saying is that you should always try to finish items on your to-do list that need to get passed off to someone else as early as possible. That way, once you’ve handed that project off, you can start a second project. That’s “getting a project in the oven” so you can “make a salad.”
For example, let’s say I have three writing projects. One is a blog, one is a case study and one is a proposal. Everything else equal, I will always start with the case study because my designer will need to take that copy and get it into design. It may feel better to get the blog done because it’s quickest, but once the copy is handed to my designer, that project is in the oven. Now I can work on making salads.
Keep Calm and Delegate On
The second reason this rule is so important is that it’s impossible to delegate from a place of panic. If you’re worried about getting something urgent done, you can’t delegate effectively, meaning at least one member on your team is probably not being used effectively. If you and your team want to be efficient, it requires a conscious effort every single day to make sure that everyone is being used effectively.
This is a trap I fall into often. Something is coming down to the wire. We need a project done. I know I’m not the best person to complete X Task, but it will just take me a second and I know I can do just well enough that at least the project will get done. I take the wheel.
This is where Alex should come in and smack me in the back of the head.
“Put it in the oven, Gringo!”
Always Know What’s in the Oven
This can be a hard one, which is why I literally use this analogy as my workflow system at this point. It can be hard to keep track of everything on your plate to begin with, but especially if you’re delegating a lot of work, it’s so easy to forget about what’s “in the oven.”
I’ve burned enough pizza in my life to know that you can’t afford this oversight.
Now I do my best to check on everything “in my oven” at least once a day, even if that’s just a follow up email. I am by no means a productivity expert, but my ability to prioritize work and execute quickly and efficiently has been an area that I have thrived thanks to the lessons Alex taught me as a pizza delivery boy. I guess the biggest thing I learned from that job was that…
Small Business Can Teach Us Incredible Lessons
There’s something incredible about working for the owner of a small business. They’re scrappy, diligent, and experts of their craft. They know every trick to the trade, and there are dozens of lessons that they can teach you about being a better employee, even if they know nothing about your job.
This is why I’m so excited to be hosting a town hall with our friends at inSourceCode next week to help teach small business owners how they can improve their online presence.
Did you know that 53% of small businesses in Indiana don’t have a website?
When I first heard that, I was floored. Luckily, so was inSourceCode founder, Jayson Manship. Jayson believes that small businesses deserve better, which is why he’s joining us next week for an incredible event.
Next week, Jayson is joining Verge along with experts on social media, Yelp, Angie’s List, and SEO to help small business owners around the state learn how they can leverage the web to grow their businesses. This isn’t a typical Verge event, but I’m asking for the Verge community to come out and show their support in the Fight For Small Campaign next week. Let’s come out strong to show the state how strongly the tech community believes in small business.
Speaking of Small Business…
What lessons have you learned from small businesses? What about food service jobs? I have two more posts to share on lessons Alex taught me, and if you guys share your stories, I’ll share a fourth post that is SUPER embarrassing that you will all get a kick out of.
So please, drop a comment with something you’ve learned from an unexpected mentor and I just might share an embarrassing story soon.