Millennial Moxie - How Service Jobs Build Skills

December 9, 2013 at 9:44 AM

This week, I continue with my theme of how a service or retail job can aid in the development of excellent work skills, including the highly coveted moxie. Unlike the Maine soft drink that shares its name, moxie is not an acquired taste. Know-how, determination and enthusiasm are qualities that employers expect and respect. They're also easy to cultivate when you work in the hospitality industry.

My first real introduction to moxie under fire was the summer after my first year of college. I had just begun a job at a Sally Beauty Supply in central Connecticut. The store employees were a motley crew: ethnically and socioeconomically diverse but all female. I was the square of the group, if I may borrow from Michael “Squints” Palledorous. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink and I wore neatly pressed jeans to work. The coworker entrusted to show me the ropes my first day was a fellow seven sister attending Smith College. She was very early 2000s alternative: multiple piercing and violet hair by Manic Panic.

Her boyfriend showed up around lunch and they left, ostensibly to eat together. I was to mind the shop until her estimated return in twenty minutes. Instead, an hour later, the store phone rang and my coworker was on the other line - hysterical. Her boyfriend had overdosed on heroin during her break and they were in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. I assured her I’d be fine. I woman-ed the shop myself based on rather meager experience: three hours of work and a thirty-minute indoctrination/anti theft video. Freaking out was not an option, nor was narcing, so I simply held down the stylistic fort until she returned. (Her boyfriend was fine).

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Twelve years later when a very different supervisor asked me to step out of my depth, I gathered my Sally Beauty Supply moxie and dove right in. This boss, a CEO at an insurance company, smoothly asked me to put together and lead a Tiger team to handle the company’s expansion. He gave me a list of names: everyone on it was older than me and had far more experience than my single month in the insurance industry. Lacking fluency in corporate lingo, I consulted my industry oracles (the internet and my older brother) on the concept of “Tiger team.” After figuring out what I needed to do, I put together the team and successfully ran the inaugural meeting. In retrospect, running that meeting was far less intimidating for me than it should’ve been. I know this is because of the skills I sharpened working hospitality and retail jobs.

Here are some of the strengths I reinforced in my years of tamping espresso, folding T shirts, pulling drafts and refraining from rolling my eyes at “double bacon cheeseburger, no bun” during the Atkins craze:

  1. Keeping Busy. One thing I learned very early on: there is always something else I can be doing. Stamping bags. Polishing silverware. Catching up on the latest jurisprudence. Returning clients’ calls. I have mastered the art of refraining from idleness, which has been a benefit regardless of my place of employment.
  2. Keeping my cool. In my last position, this came into play when a septuagenarian went on racist rant after I informed her there was no English Breakfast Tea, only China Breakfast Tea. Thankfully, I can maintain an outward straight face in a professional setting even when I’m frustrated, incredulous or distressed.
  3. Attention to detail. Folding dozens and dozens of crew neck sweaters just so tends to leave an impression. No matter where I am employed, I find that being thorough and meticulous makes many processes smoother, more effective and easier to navigate.
  4. Patience and Politeness. Some days no amount of Giant Panda Cam is going to change my bad mood. The minute I arrive at work, I know that I have to stop focusing on myself and start focusing on the customers. Providing pleasant, helpful service to others regardless of my emotional state has become automatic.
  5. Thick skin. I’ve had ornery chefs launch profanity-laced tirades at me in the middle of service and customers old enough to be my father/grandfather make suggestive comments. While I didn’t have thin skin when I entered the industry, it’s downright rhino-like now. When someone edits my work, makes a suggestion or points out an error, it’s easy to take those things in stride.

Where have you found moxie and what have you learned from your detours, stops and starts along the way?

AnnMarie Quintaglie McIlwain is a former marketing executive with Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson and consultant to several Fortune 100 companies.  Now, as Founder and CEO of, she is a social entrepreneur who connects people with the information and inspiration they need in order to get jobs and start businesses. CareerFuel is the only site that gives people what they need to know to find jobs or start businesses plus blogs and short films about real people who made it happen. 

A recipient of numerous civic and leadership awards, AnnMarie is a Board member of, was a participant in the first White House Entrepreneurial Session, the recent WeOwnIt Summit, and the first Alley to the Valley Event.  She is also a member of 85Broads and Startup America.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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