My First Job: A dishwasher's path to upper management | Crain's Boston

My First Job: A dishwasher's path to upper management

  • Dana Ball (Courtesy T1D Exchange)

    Dana Ball | Photo courtesy of T1D Exchange

  • The Lobster Barn is razed in a controlled burn earlier this year. (Dana Ball)

    The Lobster Barn is razed in a controlled burn earlier this year. | Photo courtesy of Dana Ball

  • The Lobster Barn. (Dana Ball)

    The Lobster Barn. | Photo courtesy of Dana Ball

Dana Ball is executive director of T1D Exchange, a nonprofit that aggregates data from patients with type 1 diabetes in order to help researchers improve outcomes.

My first job was as a dishwasher at a very busy restaurant called The Lobster Barn in York, Maine—Southern Maine. I was only 15 years old.

It was a steak and seafood restaurant—lots of lobster, lots of tourists, high-volume, high-energy. It was simple food, not a fancy restaurant, but a place where locals and tourists came together.

I think everyone should work in a restaurant at some point because they're an amazing training ground. When I took that job I thought, you know, I'm a lowly dishwasher, but it was a great summer job and I wanted to make money.

That's how I started, but quickly I learned that I was an important part of a team. And although I was at the back end of the house washing dishes, very quickly within the first few days I started to observe this team. I started to learn that every aspect of the operations had to be in sync or there were horrible consequences that occurred very quickly. And I came to really appreciate as I watched this whole thing unfold over a fairly short period of time.

The hostess controls the pace, the rhythm of the evening that the whole restaurant runs on. If they didn't control the pace the restaurant's kitchen was flooded with orders, the quality suffered and the service suffered. I never really thought of that before. And the waitstaff is really in the business of customer satisfaction. If they did that well the whole business ran so much smoother, and that's reflected in compensation through their gratuity. And the back of the house was the anchor of the business. I remember thinking, I'm not just a dishwasher, but I'm part of a team.

I realized that we all had shared goals, and that when we did our jobs well as part of that team we had successful outcomes. The culture was an important part of the work environment. We had to show each other respect, we had to support each other. Ultimately it was the collaboration between the front of the house, the delivery team, the cooks, the back of the house, the dishwashers that make a successful evening.

It's actually an interesting time to tell this story because the owners of the restaurant [recently] sold off the property and donated the restaurant to the local fire department. And ... they did a controlled burn to raze the building to make more room for a more successful restaurant on the property. I have a weekend home up in Maine so I happened to be there on my way to the hardware store, and I drove by the restaurant when they were burning it down. And I sat there and I pulled over to watch the burn for a minute. I felt a little sad because that was my first job and I really always credit it with being so important to my development.

I think the reality is that early experience shaped my ability to work on a team and eventually [become] a CEO. I really love what I do.

There's a serving correlation: today I serve the needs of people affected by chronic disease, and if you look back to my first job I served the needs of the restaurant employees making sure that they had what they needed to do their job.

Today I spend a lot of time listening to the needs of our constituents and developing new programs designed to improve our constituents' lives. But a long time ago, as part of that early experience, I realized I can't do this by myself. I've brought those core, foundational principles and skills to each organization, each team.

If that team's in sync and we use the same principles, make sure that we have shared goals and respect ... it runs really well. And as soon as we lose sight of those, it's just like the restaurant: you see things start to unravel. It has become core to who I am and it has become core to every organization that I've built.

July 11, 2017 - 9:08pm