Chick-fil-A vice president: How to find your first job (the career advice I give my own kids)

Years ago, before my children were old enough to work, I began a private file of lessons I wanted to be sure to share with them when they began to consider their first job.

After serving as Vice President of Talent and Vice President of Human Resources at Chick-fil-A, I had accumulated a list full of both best practices from great candidates and mistakes of job candidates.

Most of the lessons learned from the candidates were character driven. The candidate who remembered to write a hand-written note not only to me, but to each person he met in the process represented the highest level of courtesy and respect.

The person who lied about her grade point average or treated the receptionist poorly was a reminder of behavior to avoid.

Don’t just choose a job. Choose an organization and a person for whom you really desire to work. You are choosing to associate yourself with a company and its people – be sure it is a match to you.

These behaviors either accelerated the process for a candidate or became a barrier from receiving a job offer.

From these files, I generated some of the top advice that I gave my own children.

1. Don’t just choose a job. Choose an organization and a person for whom you really desire to work. You are choosing to associate yourself with a company and its people – be sure it is a match to you. This is the place where your resume begins. Are you proud of the product or service?

2. Apply. Apply. Apply. For a first job, you might have to apply for a lot of jobs just to land one interview. If it is a place you really desire to work and you are turned down, apply again. Persistence can be an attractive quality to a potential employer.

3. Research the company and prepare meaningful questions. Never go to an interview without first learning about the company and developing thoughtful questions, even if it is your very first job in high school.

If you have no work experience, be prepared to talk about any responsibility you have assumed in the past. Highlight any volunteer work, babysitting, lawn mowing or even lemonade stand experience. 

Consider any experience you have had fund-raising for school or community projects as well. You will want to highlight anything that demonstrates your initiative and drive.

Be sure that you not only talk about what you did but why you did it. Your potential employer may be interested to know what motivates you.

4. Look the part.  If you can, find out the appropriate dress for the interview. It is much better to be overdressed than underdressed. Pay attention to the details of personal grooming such as clean nails and shined shoes.

Your goal is to distinguish yourself from other applicants.

5. Establish a list of references. Before your first interview is a good time to get a list of references in order. If possible, the best references are people to whom you have previously been accountable.

A potential employer is not likely interested in talking to your father’s best friend unless you actually worked for him. Coaches, club advisors, volunteer organization leaders and teachers can all be good choices.

Be sure to ask these individuals for permission to be a reference. You don’t want any of them to be surprised to receive a call or email from a potential employer. Prepare your list in advance with name, relationship to you, phone number and email address.

6. Be Yourself.  During the interview, answer questions in a way that helps the potential employer get to know you.

Prepare for the talking points you want to communicate during the interview and use opportunities to share those as the questions are asked.

Always end the interview by thanking the interviewer and asking when you should expect to hear about next steps.

7. Write thank you notes. Send an email thanking the interviewer on the day of the interview. Follow-up with a hand-written note within a few days. Some people prefer one or the other, but if you do both, you are sure to leave an impression.

8.  Get experience and experiment. You might have to do a few or a lot of things you don’t want to do.

One of my son’s first jobs was cleaning swimming pools one summer. While my son certainly learned a lot about cleaning and maintaining pools, he also learned a lot of life lessons from his manager.

His manager saw the potential in him and could also see that he needed some direction. During his lunch break each day, my son went through the drive-thru of his favorite restaurant (Chick-fil-A, of course), while his manager brown bagged it, explaining that he could not afford to eat lunch at a restaurant every day.

On one occasion, his manager asked him if I was able to take earned vacation time anytime I choose. When my son replied affirmatively that I am able to do that, he encouraged him by saying, “get a job like that.”

Sometimes, experience is found in the lessons we learn along the way, not in the work itself.

9. Be grateful to someone who will give you a chance. Hiring someone with no experience is a big risk. Not only does that company have to teach you the job, sometimes they have to teach you how to work.

You make it much easier for them when you show up on time or early, dressed appropriately and ready to go to work.

Not only does that help you keep your job, but it allows your new boss to focus on developing you in your job, rather than wondering if you will work out at all.

10. Think forward. Recognize that every day of your first job is a stepping stone to the rest of your career. Grow relationships. Do more than is asked. Be positive and learn something new every day.

Starting a first job is an exciting venture into the world of work that leads to independence in adulthood.

Starting well is great preparation for a lifetime of success.