I was recently invited to give a presentation on what it takes to become an “executive director.” I was flattered at the invitation, but a little unsure of what I’d say, as I sort of landed in this position unexpectedly.

After noodling it over, I realized I had one important piece of advice: learn how to work.

Most of us realize after a number of years in the workforce, that there isn’t one “right” path to the top. Sure there are certain steps you have to take if you want to become a lawyer or a professor or a doctor; but even then it’s not a straight arrow to the corner office.

Part of what makes success difficult at times is that it can be challengin to figure out what you need to do. My advice for those just entering the workforce is to figure out not what to work on, but how to work.

This might seem strange to many young people who likely assume there are clear tasks to be completed the way they are in school: finish the math assignment, write the history paper, do the book review.

And sometimes there are. But often in the workplace that’s not the case. Even in the most organized jobs there’s not always a “checklist” for you to make sure you complete. It becomes incumbent upon the employee to figure out their job responsibilities, design their role in the office, and make the most of their position.

That’s why a new campaign by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) caught my eye.  According to the NRA women especially benefit tremendously from the restaurant industry, which among other things provides good entry-level jobs, opportunity, and flexibility. In a statement they put out this week they point out:

Like no other sector, restaurant jobs provide opportunities for women of all backgrounds and experience levels by helping them gain the experience they need to jumpstart careers or the ability to advance toward management or executive positions more quickly than most other industries.

I couldn’t agree more.

My first “real” job – outside of babysitting and teaching piano lessons – was at the Fresh Pasta Shoppe, a small pizza and pasta restaurant in New England. While the shop wasn’t much bigger than my car, there was plenty of work to do. I had a few “official” responsibilities – make the cheese bread each morning (yes, I gained a good 10 lbs that summer), make the bread salad, prep the pesto – but the real work was in figuring out what to do when those jobs were done.

It took me a few weeks to realize that there was always something that needed to be done in a restaurant. We received deliveries daily that needed to be put away, the trash was always overflowing and needed to be taken out, the sink filled with dishes in minutes and needed to be washed (in hot water, despite the 500 degree oven steps away!).

I felt unprepared and uncertain in the beginning about my role there. I was waiting for instructions. And sometimes found myself idling around. But in time I learned how to work. I learned that making the restaurant run required all hands on deck all day long. It meant always making yourself available. And it meant saying to yourself, look around and find something that needs to be done.

The National Restaurant Association reports: “Ninety-two percent of women who have worked in a restaurant say the restaurant industry is a good place to get a first job and learn valuable skills.” They're absolutely right.

Today my line of work has changed – although I still really enjoy the kitchen! – but what I took away from that first restaurant job is an understanding that my job is never done. I always have another donor to follow up with, another article to write, another staff member to talk to, another project to explore.

What is very clear is that working in a restaurant is a great first step to becoming an executive director.