By Tim Hayes

It’s been said in the business world that the most troublesome — yet potentially game-changing – variable in any organization comes in the form of people. The hiring process, when you get down to the nub of it, can be a tremendous gamble.

You may get lucky and hire the perfect candidate, a self-motivated soul who “gets it” straightaway and performs like a dream for years on end.

Or, it could just as easily go the other way. People have a way of “decorating the truth,” as one notable old friend of mine once quipped, embellishing achievements here, skirting uncomfortable episodes there, polishing that gormless lump of clay until it downright shines. But once that person’s in the door and resources have been committed in salary and benefits, training, office space and equipment, it can become too late – or too expensive – to realize and correct the error.

The wrong person has been hired. And the thought of cranking the wheel all over again, going through the whole cracked-up carousel ride for another spin, becomes overwhelmingly intimidating, insufferable, inconceivable.

Mrs. Hunter must have felt that way, all those years ago.

Mrs. Hunter, an elderly widow about seven doors up the hill from my house, lived alone and needed someone to cut her grass during the spring and summer months, since her son lived on the other side of the city. She first hired one of my next-door neighbors, a guy about three years older than me. He did the job for a couple of years before bequeathing it to his younger brother.

When that kid got sick of it, the mantle fell to me. Oh boy, my first paying job! I had cut my grandma’s yard for a while, but the pay there came in the form of homemade bread and jelly made in her kitchen from grapes grown in the shady arbor of her back yard. Wonderful stuff, but it didn’t exactly jingle in your pocket, you know?

Upon hearing that I had accepted the job, Mrs. Hunter summoned me to her back door and laid down the law. She had exacting standards for how her grounds were to be kept. All clippings bagged and taken away. Not a blade of grass to be left on any sidewalks or steps.

You would think this had been topiary training at Disney World, not a tiny scrap of yard and a couple of hedges. But she had to look out the window at my handiwork for two weeks at a time before I pushed my Dad’s mower up the alley for another spin around the grassy patches, and she didn’t suffer a half-ass job willingly or cheerfully.

And let’s not forget the grand haul of ten bucks per cut at stake. Serious coin, when one’s budget consists of penny candy at the corner store and the occasional 45-rpm record.

Mrs. Hunter rang our house regularly from April through October, asking where her lawn boy ran off to, and why wasn’t he up there right now? Doesn’t he look at my yard and see it needs to be cut?

Well, no. I ambled past her yard four times a day during the school year, walking to school, home for lunch, back to school, and home again later. Never once did it occur to me to survey the height of the grass and proactively leap into action behind our trusty Toro. Not until decades later did I appreciate her point of view. It does help to keep ahead of trends and opportunities! Duh.

With the advent of high school, I began to dread the idea of another season answering the call from Mrs. Hunter, so I started recruiting my replacement. A couple of younger candidates had auditions, both of whom crapped out pretty spectacularly. They couldn’t handle the Hunter.

The hiring process got away from me. I’d sent her a couple of duds, so she lost confidence in my ability to screen suitable applicants. Before long, any thought of Mrs. Hunter and her precision approach to lawn care faded from memory as high school activities and better paying jobs started flowing my way.

For all I know, her son got dragged back into service, driving across town, cutting the lawn seven doors up the street, back home with his mother. He may not have forgiven me yet.

But I’m glad I had the chance to earn some spending money – and my first stripes in the lifelong workplace wars – with my first boss, Mrs. Hunter.  Despite my early-teenaged ignorance and inattentiveness, some of the core business lessons offered while cutting her grass managed to sink in anyway.

Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes