Sometimes You Just Need to Pick up the Shovel

Murray Pratt Blog, Business Insights, Life

During the first week of February, 14-inches of snow fell on metropolitan Vancouver. This dump of snow isn’t anything significant to many of those who live in northern climates – people who live at a ski hill for instance, or those folks who live in on the Canadian Prairies where this volume of snow, and more, can arrive overnight.

Vancouver doesn’t inspire much pity as it’s the one of the warmest cities in Canada – located on the west coast, the temperate Pacific Ocean  moderates our climate. But for a city that can go without any snow for an entire winter, this was indeed unique – unique to have this volume of snow in such a short period of time, and unique in that it had accumulated on the ground. Typically a big heavy rainfall turns the city into one gigantic ‘Slurpee’ shortly after a snowfall.

Over that week I shoveled my sidewalk and driveway at least 10 times. I like to do it frequently because when the rain arrives it can turn a layer of snow into ice if it has been packed down by tire tracks. Or the snow can get far too heavy to shovel when it turns to slush. So getting at it quickly when it’s light and dry makes a lot of sense to me.

As I was shoveling on one of the nights, I realized how much shoveling snow was in my DNA – my work DNA anyways. Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta meant living in the northern most major city in North America. It meant dealing with four to five months of snow every year. As such, I am infused with memories of skating and playing hockey on outdoor ice, tobogganing down the hills of our river valley, and the toothpick races in the gutters and sewers lining the road during the annual spring run-off.

And as I rhythmically shoveled my driveway, I thought back to a time in 1972 when I was 11-years old. I thought back to my first ever job – how great it felt to have my OWN job, to be able to earn a buck. I was paid $1.50 per hour to shovel the sidewalks for our local church. As much as shoveling snow is an ‘outside job’ it was probably more so an ‘inside job’. You see, my father was the minister of the church, and we lived in the church manse right next door. So the while the commute to work wasn’t bad, there was also the issue of having to deal with the boss 24/7.  To this day I can remember the first check from the treasurer of the church – Mr. Cordingly.

That winter I worked hard. I kept the sidewalks clear. Often the snow on the sides was piled higher than my head, so there was quite a bit of lifting and throwing. I remember how good it felt when a lady walked down the sidewalk one day and told me “what a pleasure” it was to walk on my sidewalk every day because it was always clean. I never forget the recognition she gave me and how I felt.  And I always remember the time that a great snowfall arrived, dumping a couple of feet of snow. My dad assembled a team comprised of him and my two older brothers who joined me to shovel the snow. During our work my dad sensed my disgruntled state as I threw the snow in frustration.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

I get $1.50 an hour to do this. And we are going to get this all done in just an hour!” I responded.

You see, I had dreams of a five hour payday – a whopping $7.50!!!

“No, he said. We are going to charge the church for all of our time to do this. AND, you are going to get the money! Now get shoveling” he admonished me.

It was amazing how much lighter the snow was after I found this out. I think I even started whistling!

I made $37.50 that winter and put it all in my bank account. I bought a men’s set of golf clubs with that money… my dad contributed some more to that purchase. I played with those clubs for 25 years – won a few tournaments and played to a 5-Handicap. I never forgot what I did to get those clubs, and it was only when my first child arrived could I part with them.

Some 30 years later I was working for a North American resort company and was visiting our site in Quebec. It was a lovely ski resort built in the picturesque Laurentian Mountains northwest of Montreal. I loved visiting the location, engaging in some of the fun activities that accompanied my work – skiing, golfing, swimming, and tennis – while gulping down some of the Quebecois culture. And mangling the local language with my Grade 12 French.

One particular time when I was visiting there I was working in our sales center. Overnight we got about 12-inches of snow – a Godsend for a ski resort. After our morning motivational session with the sales team, I saw the sales manager head out with a shovel. This sales manager was a bit older than me, and while he didn’t report directly to me he did report to one of my colleagues. I liked him but I knew he could sometimes ruffle some feathers. He sometimes upset my colleague with his stubbornness, and some of his salespeople with his rough edges.

While I understood all that, I appreciated the fact that he had the courage that gave the entire team some ‘backbone’ in the rough and tumble sales world in which they operated. He practically grew up in the resort. He lived the resort life. He embodied many of the principles of mountain and resort living. He was tough because he knew his team needed it to be successful. And despite the drawbacks he always showed up.

As for me, I was ‘the guy from head office’ – one of those executive types that would be like the proverbial seagull – fly in, squawk, crap all over everybody, and then fly back out. But that morning I could see that he was going out to shovel the snow off the sidewalk leading from the Sales Center to the model Show Home. The ‘Show Home’ home was a ‘signature step’ in our sales process, so it was important that the walk be cleared because people had to see what they were buying.

I grabbed a shovel and started shoveling. We worked feverishly to move snow in time before the first wave of guests arrived for their sales presentations. As we shoveled the snow he stopped to rest and as he propped his chin on his hands atop the handle of the shovel he said to me.

“I have shoveled snow here for eight years. This is the first time an executive from head office has ever come out to help.

“Really?” I remarked. “Wow… I guess that’s what growing up in Edmonton did for me,” I winked.

We worked up a sweat getting the snow cleared and headed back in for a day of selling, just as a busload of guests arrived for their presentations.

I thought about his statement that night as I laid in my bed drifting off to sleep after a tiring day.

I am thinking about it today as I reflect on the journey that we are taking at our trucking software company. At times it’s exhilarating while at other times it’s challenging.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the ‘misses’ on things, or the lack of progress in other areas, but I am mindful that our people, like Brian the sales manager, are going about their work and ‘grabbing their shovels’, and working on things that are unseen or unheard. They are working on the things that make our business work, that make things better for our customers.

This all serves as a reminder to me today. Instead of getting upset over the inevitable gaffes and misses in a growing business, I am best to do what I did in the first job I ever had. I just need to pick up a shovel and start shoveling snow before it builds up and gets too heavy.

Share this Post