Disbelief is the usual reaction when I tell new employees and colleagues about my first job. The stunned pause is usually followed by a series of questions: "What was it like?” or, “What did you do there?” And every time, I answer that it was one of the most unique learning experiences of my career.
You see, while my high school buddies worked at the local mall or the YMCA, I opted for a more curious gig: groundskeeper at a cemetery in Bountiful, Utah.
It was a job in which I coordinated burial services, assigned plots, performed grounds maintenance, facilitated tours and dug graves -- some 200 graves, in all.
It was also job that -- regardless of what you may be thinking this Halloween season -- wasn't creepy at all. In fact, I learned a number of lessons at the cemetery that have carried me throughout my career to my current marketing position at Bluehost.
1. Cemetery-style compassion is something everyone deserves
On any regular workday, people at a cemetery were experiencing their most broken moment, and quite possibly, the worst day of their lives. Whatever personal grievance I had (small or large) seemed insignificant in comparison to their grief. If a visitor was angry or frustrated with the service or the plot, I found that showing compassion and understanding not only resolved problems faster but provided some relief to the family.
For example, many family members wanted to assist with the actual burials after a graveside service; however, we only allowed people to be first to put dirt on the vault. Then, one day, one particular family was frustrated with this rule and insisted on an exception being made.
At first, we stuck to our rules. But the family members kept insisting, and tensions escalated. That's when we stopped citing policy and listened. We learned that the actual burial was a significant part of their culture. After grasping the importance of the ritual itself, we accommodated the request. Clearly, we could have saved time and frustration had we empathized from the start.
Lesson: Empathy may seem like common sense for working with grieving visitors, but it’s a skill that applies to the business world, as well. According to Business Solver’s 2017 Workplace Empathy Monitor survey, 92 percent of employees polled said they'd be more likely to stay with a company if that company empathized with their needs. So, clearly, empathy isn't just a feel-good employee concern -- it's a key driver in keeping employees engaged and potentially boosting productivity.
2. Cemetery workers are a great example of what a "work ethic" should be
Whether you're taking care of roughly 40 acres of plots or leading a business of any size, "work ethic" is a skill that's crucial to leadership. In this context, I’m not sure you'll find harder-working individuals than cemetery workers. Our labor-intensive days started around 6 a.m. And, from cleaning headstones to digging graves, to maintaining the grounds, we put in considerable work with very little staff.
On more than a few occasions,we had to dig five to six different plots in 100-plus-degree heat, then turn around and manage the graveside services. We couldn’t simply pitch our shovels to take a lunch break or rest our arms. It would have been unacceptable for a family to show up for a service without an open plot. They needed to focus on their guests and relatives during their time of mourning.
For these reasons, my personal work ethic at the cemetery directly impacted the lives of visitors and families, and the same could be said of entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Lesson: Working long hours, following through on tasks despite physical exhaustion and stress: That’s part of the gig when you’re a leader. While leadership might look glamorous from the outside, in reality, it's more like working at the cemetery in 100-degree heat, digging straight through an eight-hour shift.
3. Even a leader can grab a shovel
A Harvard Business Review survey revealed that 58 percent of people surveyed said they trusted strangers more than their own boss. This is truly shocking.
In my experience, leading by example is the most effective way to build trust and get a team behind you. When employees see leaders who are willing to put in the time, they are inspired to do the same. Leading by example sets the right tone for those in the lower levels of an organization and negates any resentment they may feel toward upper management.
Throughout my own career, my favorite managers have been those willing to roll up their sleeves and jump into the trenches with me.
Lesson: At the cemetery, my supervisor, Geno, was one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever met. Geno was always ready to jump in when we needed help in mowing, digging and cleaning -- you name it. He never pulled rank. Geno’s leadership taught me to stay humble, and to realize that job titles don’t excuse leaders from grabbing a shovel.
4. Even in a cemetery, job fitness is an issue.
Building a high-functioning team is no easy feat, but is crucial to the success of an organization. While the initial instinct may be to hire people with the necessary skills, I’ve learned over the course of my career that the more important question has to do with fitting into a team culture.
Working at the cemetery was the first time I was exposed to a team environment. While our group was small, we were a tight-knit bunch. And because we were so few, we had to figure out how best to work together to get the job done.
One summer, we were desperate for help, so we opened a position and hired -- too quickly. The new employee had the desired availability and skills but wasn’t a team fit -- which was immediately apparent. Tasks took him twice the time to complete; and as a result, morale declined, and productivity dropped off. After months of struggling as a group, we decided to make a change. That change helped us bounce back to normal production.
Lesson: Had we vetted the new hire more closely, we would have saved time and morale in the long run.
5. Death is worse than the small bumps in life
While it might not seem like a cemetery would have many problems, we had our fair share. The job function was fairly consistent: mow lawns, trim hedges, dig holes. However, every week a new challenge arose: Think: weather challenges, time constraints, etc. Cue stress.
According to APA’s 2017 Work and Well-Being survey, 58 percent of Americans polled said that work is a significant source of stress. In addition to its health impacts, U.S. employers lose an estimated $300 billion annually through absenteeism, illness and productivity, according to the American Institute for Stress.
Leaders can lessen this stress by embracing and teaching perspective. Whenever I’m stressed out at work, I think back on the cemetery. Not because those were some of the best days of my life (though actually they were), but because I would think about the people and families I interacted with.
When you're surrounded by death every day, you gain perspective on what really matters. Work and school can be stressful and seem like the most important thing, but when you take a step back to look at the larger picture, those stresses are a small bump in a larger road.
Despite the cobwebs, bats, zombies, ghosts or black cats you'll likely see displayed in your neighborhood this Halloween, a cemetery is not a dark and dreary place but a spot that is welcoming and considerate to the community around it.
Lesson: Cemeteries can be overwhelmingly positive and peaceful, assuming you're just visiting and have the right outlook. They celebrate the past while encouraging hope and a look to the future.
Leaders of small and large businesses alike could learn a thing or two from working at a cemetery, I know I did.
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.