Conventional wisdom: Successful leaders fly up the ladder

On the contrary: The best management lessons are on the ground

When I was 23, I took a job as a crew chief for a commercial janitorial company in Chicago. It's a strange occupation for an economics major, but jobs in the mid-1970s were tight and I thought there was money in dirt.

That job was one of many early experiences with grunt work that shaped my philosophy as a CEO (or Chief Big Ass, as we say around Big Ass Fans). I also worked at a dry cleaner, as a shoe salesman, and even cleaned bedpans at a hospital. Each job shaped me as an employee--and, eventually, as an employer.

Lesson One: Value a job done well

The first and most important lesson I learned was the value of all work. In high school I was an orderly at a hospital and occasionally did bedpan duty with a woman who was deadly serious about getting those pans as clean as possible. Of course I resented it at first; in those days the process was hot, dirty and a lot like industrial dishwashing.

That was before I realized that if you're going to take your time doing anything, do it to the best of your ability. Without that, you won't be satisfied with your work, and your work won't satisfy others. And if you set personal goals that you constantly try to top, you can make even the most tedious job a challenge. That's the real carrot of a job well done.

Lesson Two: You're only as good as your employees

It's been years since that cleaning company job in Chicago, but I still know how to mop a floor the right way (and I'm damn proud of that fact). Running a floor cleaning crew was a tricky process because the job couldn't be completed in a single shift; you had to wait for water or wax to dry overnight between steps.

Unfortunately, the company's poor attitude toward its employees meant such a high turnover rate that the next night might involve a whole new staff who wouldn't know where the process had stopped. In these situations, my bosses insisted we start at the beginning--so we'd have to begin the job all over again. It was a never-ending, infuriating cycle of mopping hell, made worse by the displeasure expressed by the customer that their floors were not being cleaned as promised.

I lasted 9 months at that position, which was way above average. My take away from that job--besides a lifelong obsession with mopping--is that employees make or break a process, and the easiest way to improve is to hire and keep the best workers.

Lesson Three: The best bosses understand motivation

My first lesson in management came from my siblings. I'm the oldest of four and both my parents worked, so it was my responsibility to make sure chores got done after school. I caught on quickly: If I motivated the others to help me, and if I didn't ask them to do anything I wouldn't do myself, we'd get done quickly and have time to play. If I pissed them off, I'd be stuck cleaning the house alone all afternoon.

It gets more sophisticated over time, but all management pretty much boils down to that old lesson. The best jobs I held--even if they were difficult or uninspiring--were those in which I felt valued by my managers, instead of expendable like my crew at the cleaning company. So today I could tell you everything about my favorite manager at the shoe store, but I would struggle to remember any of my cleaning company bosses' names.

The Best Lesson: Just be a human

When I make decisions about building and sustaining my company, my experience as an employee holds the same weight as any report or study. People drive businesses and work for intangible benefits, like pride and respect, as much as they work for money.

Once you've been shafted at a job, it's hard to turn around and do that to others if you have any heart at all. That's just basic empathy. The easiest way to develop that in the business world is through challenging and difficult experiences--like working tough, unglamorous jobs. They'll make you a better employee, a better employer and a better person in the long run.