Setting up this business has made me reflect on my entire working life; every job, every boss, every co-worker, every task I have ever encountered. Of course, this trip down memory lane included the very visceral memory of my first job: working in a butcher shop. Yes, at 15 years-old, I worked every Saturday as a shop girl at a local butcher shop; cutting up, preparing and serving meat. It sounds so glamorous; I know, but what it lacked in glamour, it made up for in life lessons.
The shop was owned by two past, middle-aged gentlemen. Both had immigrated to Canada many years earlier, one from Scotland and one from England. They had ended up working in the same meat processing plant and a shared culture and birth had brought them together. They formed a fast friendship and after working hard to save as much money as they could, they partnered to open the butcher shop. Their shop went from strength to strength. By the time I was hired, I joined 5 other ‘Shop Girls’ who assisted them in their trade.
When cast my mind back to those Saturdays in the shop, I remember it like it was yesterday. The times when we were run off our feet, the entire store filled with customers and everyone of us racing to get them all served. The times when there was not one customer in the shop and all of our preparation completed, we sat in the small office drinking tea and chatting, our bosses telling us of their lives back in the UK. When a lone customer did appear, one of us (usually me, being the youngest, newest staff member) would rush out to the front of the store and serve her. There were a few customers who were friends of the owners and they would serve them personally. One cold winter day, one of these customers came in the shop and my Scottish boss enlisted me to help serve him and his family. I knew the man well. He looked like a hippy that time forgot. He wore a tan, cloth coat, with an old, obviously hand made cable-knit sweater underneath. On top of his head was an old fisher man’s hat, which covered his long straight hair and framed his long busy beard and twinkling blue eyes. His wife was cubby cheeked, with a natural, milk-fed look about her. She looked a strong robust woman who was capable of doing many things from chopping wood to making the aforementioned sweater. They had about four children, or it could have been six. I remember that I thought it was a lot, and that he or his wife were always carrying one little on each, with the others arranged around their parents’ legs. They drove a beat up old station wagon and once a month they would come in and buy enough meat to fill up the back of it. They must have had a huge freezer and fridge to hold their monthly supply of meat. As my boss served them, he would take their purchase off of the scale and place it in front of me to wrap up, tape up and write upon. As I mechanically wrapped up contents after contents and wrote things like: tenderloin, pork chops and chicken breasts on the resulting packages, I wondered about this family that my boss always jumped up to serve. Who were they? They hardly looked like the sort of customer’s my bosses usually served. Those other customers were well-heeled, respectable looking, people, much like my parents. They lived they regular, white-picket-fence existences, with their jobs and children and central heating. This couple looked like their home was a log cabin and their job was living in it.
That day, after the numerous packages had finally been piled into the cloth bags which the mysterious family always brought, my boss and I leaned on the counter looking at the now busy shop full of people all being served by the others.
“Who are those people?” I asked.
“I knew that man’s parent’s and I have known him since he was a young man. Answered my boss. “You see all of these people?” He asked thoughtfully.
“Yes?” I answered confused.
“That man has more money than all of these people put together.”
“But then why do he and his family look so poor?” I blurted out.
My boss laughed at me. “He chooses to look like that. He chooses to live naturally; off the land with his family. He said this with obvious respect and admiration in his voice. “Natalie, you can never judge a book by its cover.”
I had of course heard that expression countless times, and I was not raised to be a snob, but my own normal, middle-class upbringing had made me judgemental, without my even knowing it. I expected people who had money to look a certain way, just as I expected people who didn’t have money to look a certain way. My boss ended his lesson with the suggestion to “Always treat everyone you meet with respect. You never know who someone is. You do not know what their story is, so consider everyone the same, because they are. We all are…”
When I think back to that moment in time, I realise that I received something far beyond the $60 I used to be handed at the end of every Saturday. I had received an insight that, if truly understood, would make me a better and more successful person. I was entreated with the understanding that no matter what story I might make up about a person, place or thing, the truth is often very different. I luckily did take this lesson to heart and it became part of me. Since that time, I have travelled and lived in different places. I have met people who have tons of money, position and power. I have met people who have nothing but a small piece of earth that they doggedly tend to eke out their daily sustenance. I have met people with five degrees in a combination of maths and physics and people who can barely read a newspaper. I have met people from all cultures and all walks of life and I have never presumed to know who or what they were. I have never again judged a book by its cover…
You might think that this a strange topic for what is supposed to be a business blog, but I think that we cannot separate the personal from the professional. We bring the person that we are, made up of all our life lessons, to our professional life. Not judging a book by its cover, has made me a better person and a better employee. It has allowed me to truly understand not only the people I work with, but also their business needs. If we presume that we know who someone is then we usually miss who they actually are and in doing so, miss what they actually require. By keeping an open mind and treating everyone with equity and respect we are better able to serve our fellow man, be it in a tiny butcher shop on a long ago Saturday, or in the office of a new client in the future.