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Timeless Leadership Lessons I Learned from My First Job as a Swim Instructor

My First Job as a Swim Instructor

THERE’S something about our first jobs that stick with us. They teach us things we didn’t expect to learn and shape the person we become later in our professional lives. This phenomenon happens even when that first job has absolutely nothing to do with the career you ultimately end up pursuing, which is exactly what happened to me.

I was 14 when I first started as a lifeguard and swim instructor at my hometown pool in Canton, Connecticut. I got the position despite an awkward first interview: an inexperienced teenager – I simply wasn’t prepared for the questions they asked. What would you say are your greatest strengths and weaknesses? Where do you see yourself in five years?

I didn’t know. But they gave me the job anyway. And in the months that followed, I learned some important lessons that guide me in my work life even to this day as a healthcare executive. Here are three of the most important ones:

Lesson 1: Don’t Force It

As a swim instructor, I quickly learned that moving at the student’s pace - moving into the pool one step at a time, taking small steps - or strokes - instead of telling them to jump into the deep end right off the bat, or worse yet forcing them into the water when they were not ready, creates much better results. Using the baby step approach develops students who are comfortable and who, instead of being so paralyzed with fear that they can’t move, feel ready to learn. Breaking lessons into smaller, more manageable goals - like reaching underwater for the penny on the stairs first and then submerging their heads in the shallow end second - actually increased my students’ rates of improvement because they could move to the next level with confidence.

While each staff member may learn at a different pace, slow and steady progression in their individual roles is beneficial to all. Creating manageable and immediate goals - all of which may lead to the accomplishment of a larger goal - makes for a confident worker who enjoys learning new things and growing and tends to stay in their job or at the company longer.

Lesson 2: Making it Fun Makes a Difference

In swimming class, making lessons fun is easy: “Let’s see who can splash the most water out of the pool by kicking their legs as straight as possible!” almost always works with kids. And while they are busy having fun, they’re also improving an essential skill for their swimming.

Not everything can be fun all the time – we call it work for a reason – but finding ways to turn trainings into games, holding a competition for the best way to improve a work process, or giving monthly employee of the month awards are all ways to reward staff for a job well done. No matter our age, we all enjoy playing, and making training enjoyable can create professionals who have perfected skills that will be essential for more serious situations.

Lesson 3: Persistence Pays Off

Anyone who has ever coached or taught knows the incredible satisfaction that comes from watching a student or athlete achieve a goal. As a swim instructor, watching the child who was scared to even step into the shallow end of the pool finally jump off the diving board was as rewarding for me as it was for the swimmer.

One of my greatest managerial joys is seeing a LinkedIn posting about a new position or reading a healthcare publication article about some new company’s success and realizing that I am reading about one of my former employees. Our greatest success as managers is seeing those we mentored succeed themselves.

Today, if you visit my office in Boston, you’ll see a framed copy of The New Yorker magazine, from August 21, 1954, hanging on the wall. The title reads “Summer Camp Swimming Lessons” by Abe Birnbaum. On the cover: the illustration of a young woman sitting on the side of the pool, near the deep end, teaching the arm stroke to seven small children as they hang tightly onto a safety rope strung across the middle of the pool. One child hasn’t made his way into the water yet. Another has his toes dipped in the shallow end, hesitatingly making his way in. That could have just as easily been a drawing of me at my first job during that Connecticut summer: red shirt, one kid out of the pool, and all.

A lot has changed in the world of work since that summer, but the leadership lessons I learned giving swim classes at the pool in 1977 are as timeless as that vintage magazine cover.

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Leading Forum
Deb Schoenthaler is the Executive Director of Physician Performance LLC, an organization of 2,900 physicians that participates in value-based contracts through the Beth Israel Lahey Health Performance Network. Their mission is to give members a strong voice in how care is delivered, promoting new and innovative ways to advance the practice of medicine in New England. Our members find the benefits of belonging to a world-renowned provider network while maintaining autonomy and individuality within their own practices.

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