Rhonda Begos-Zolecki

Rhonda Begos-Zolecki

How To Be A Leader – From A True Subordinate

Back in the day, I used to be a waitress. My first experience in that position came when I worked on a boat in Boston, MA as a singing waitress for a Boat touring company called The Spirit of Boston. I had never waitressed before in my life, and was very scared about the prospect of adding singing to the mix, serving drinks, having the responsibility of making folks who I had never met before excited about food, entertainment, and service from someone whose history they knew nothing about. I did not know how I was going to make these people WANT to follow me for an experience most of them had never had, and quite frankly, one I had never had. Being such a youngster at the time – 20 to be exact – I was just entering into something that was completely foreign to me. I also had to add in the fact that all of this would be happening on a boat. So if someone wasn’t happy or not satisfied, or if by chance I ran into people I didn’t like, I would trapped for almost 3 hours on water that none of us could escape from.


My first experience in understanding what it took to make this actually work came on an evening cruise close to when the summer was ending. A young man came onto the boat who, to me at the time, looked very ill. His face and hands were covered in sores. It was the late 80s and everyone was still in the beginning stages of fear with AIDS having been the headline in every US city in the nation. Many people had issue with the prospect of having this young man in their section.


He said in my section, in the back of the boat alone. I had very few tables that night. No one had assigned seating, unless the groups were very large. When other customers saw this man sit in my section, many stayed away from him. I heard even some of my co-workers telling me to make sure I washed my hands after every visit to his table.


To make an extremely long story short, my interaction with this gentleman started very frustratingly. He was not interested in hearing about my performance that would happen later on in the night. He didn’t know about the buffet that folks didn’t want to participate in, after seeing him pick food from the trays. He wanted a bottle of wine, and made it clear that he wanted to be left alone.


So for a bit of time, I left him alone after brining him his bottle of wine. But I really thought about it, and what I truly knew in my heart, was that he did not want to be left alone. It was safer to say that because then to him, it seemed instead of being in a vulnerable position of potentially letting people in who would eventually scatter, it was easier to say that you were controlling how many folks actually came in – instead of watching people walk away from you for no other reason except fear.


I came to this guy, and ignored every customer I had and spent an amazing amount of time trying to get him to talk…not because it was part of my job, but because I WANTED to know who he was. I really did. And I wanted him to know that I really cared. I didn’t know what he was sick with, but I knew he was really sick. And I just wanted this experience...THIS experience to be one that wouldn’t be like all of the others. We talked a lot, and he did open up. I remember his face. I remember his smile. I remember how happy he was that I let him in, and that he could do the same for me.


When he left, he gave me a tremendous tip, which I didn’t really care about, and tried to give back, and he told me the gift that the moment had been to him. And told me to keep it. He walked off and I cried because I knew he was going to die. I felt it. But I was happy that in that moment, he lived, AS IS, as he was. That made me extremely happy. Those people who talked about him felt terrible when I began to cry and talked about this man and who he was. So, indirectly, they were changed by the experience as well.


When college was over in Boston, I moved back to Milwaukee, and I realized as I continued waitressing that what made people come back, and what made people leave tips had nothing to do with the food. It didn’t even have to do with how fast the food came out. IT had to do with the experience. With being ACKNOWLEDGED. I always made it a point to tell people “I SEE YOU”, and even if it took a while for the food to come out, the fact that I let them know I knew they were there was enough. And I never complained about tips ever. Because the acknowledgment and genuine care is what mattered most to my customers. They followed me even when I went to other restaurants. They wanted to know where I was. One customer was a guy who NO ONE wanted to wait on, and I got through to him. He followed me too and bought me one of the most meaningful Christmas gifts ever. And he was Jewish:)


These lessons stuck with me throughout my life, especially after I quit drinking. Understanding the impact you have. Taking responsibility for the things you didn’t do right (I find myself doing that a lotJ). But what sticks in my head are the people I’ve met by chance because of my desire to know them, and to let them know they matter. Rich, poor, known, unknown, children, adults, men, women, blacks, whites, Jews, Muslim…..it was always important to ME that they knew I saw them and that I cared. Now, that doesn’t mean that at times, I haven’t had to be a hard ass and let people go who were wreaking havoc in my life, because I Have had to let folks go.


But I do know that folks don’t want to be a statistic in a study about how to engage employees more. They don’t want to be a part of a process of organizational charts, and hierarchy and uncertainty. They want to know for sure that people are in their corner. That they matter, and that their thoughts are considered. They want to be a part of a process, not just a brick in the wall, but part of the architecture, part of the cement that keeps those bricks together. They want to know that you believe their presence matters. They want you to care about what they can do best, not what their failing at, and they want those things to be brought out. They want help in breaking down the barriers in the own lives, that cause that backup in feelings and performance. Leaders can do this. Leaders, not just those with VP titles, but those who are equivalent in their job measure, can do this.


In all of my years of waitressing, I’ve had these conversations with my guests about their lives; their struggles; their triumphs. Becoming grandparents, losing loved ones, being vets. The talking and the caring is always what brought them back. My goal to make their experience count. The money was an added thing I never expected. THAT is leadership.


Be empathetic; know who your community is; get involved; work together; experience everything; come out of your bubble and more than anything…..


Be real, be genuine and let others be the same. LEARN. LEARN as much as you can.


A wonderful quote about leadership from my hero, Saint Teresa – “You can do what I cannot do; I can do what you cannot do; together, we can do great things”.


Leadership is not about a degree; it’s not about titles; it’s not about salary; it’s not about gender; it’s not based in fear; it is based in hope. Leadership is about allowing others to be leaders. When you do that, folks will not only follow you, but they’ll lead the way for someone else.


Be a leader.  

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