Leaders find experience truly is a good teacher

In 1965, my family moved to Morehead, Ky. for one year so that my Mom, who had taken a leave of absence from teaching at Beallsville Elementary, could complete her undergraduate teaching degree at Morehead State University. We still owned our farm in Malaga, Ohio so we were maintaining two residences. That situation put a strain on our family resources. Therefore, we, the children, pitched in. My sister served as the neighborhood babysitter, my older brother shoveled snow, and I took on a paper route delivering The Kentucky Post.

At 12-years-old, this paper route was quite a learning experience for me. It was an afternoon paper so immediately after school I jumped onto my bicycle and headed down to the bus station to pick up my papers. From there I made my way from one side of the town to the other, up and down the knobby hills of East Central Kentucky. In the rain or on sheets of ice, the papers were always delivered. Being a country boy, traversing a small city was a challenge in itself. I had a couple of narrow misses with cars. Once as an on-coming car was screeching to a halt, I laid down my bike sliding under the front bumper of the car. It took a while to get my breath back after that scare.

I learned more about capitalism with my paper route. I was responsible for marketing, cold calls with new customers, servicing present customers in a timely manner, and interacting with the main office. The prize for one promotion contest was a black and white jacket. Before the promotion was over, I had won two jackets, one for me and one for my older brother.

One particular sales promotion I will never forget. The Kentucky Post gave me five papers to give to potential customers without charge. Each day I laid a paper at the doorstep of one family. When Friday came, I knocked on the door and a man appeared. I told him who I was and asked, “You don’t want to subscribe to the paper do you?” He laughed and responded, “No, I guess not.” Immediately I realized that asking a sales question in the negative is not a good way to close a sale.

Several times after I had collected subscription money for my route, I realized how tight the family finances had become. I offered to contribute my earnings to Mom and Dad to ease their stress a little bit. They had given me so much it was the least I could do. Mom and Dad paid me back over the years many times over.

My paper route only lasted a little over a year but many lessons were incorporated into my field of experience. As we interact with young people in our society, we have the opportunity to create leadership experiences for them. Sometimes these leadership experiences are closely guided and other times the young people need the freedom to succeed or fail on their own. We can teach people all kinds of skills and knowledge. However, most of us incorporate learnings primarily from practicing the skills and putting knowledge to work.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning.