What working at KFC taught me about changing the world.

Photo by  Aleks Dorohovich  on  Unsplash .

Back in the day, I managed a KFC in rural Virginia. I know what you’re thinking. It must have been glorious. The smell of fried chicken wafting all day into my nose. Communing with fellow fried-chicken advocates. Biscuits. So many biscuits. 

In reality, working in a fast food restaurant is probably one of the hardest service industry jobs you can find. The environment is challenging, from the customers to the coworkers to the physical space. And no matter how tasty the fried chicken might be, spending hours in the kitchen made it a lot less appealing. 

I managed this KFC in Williamsburg, VA for 2 and a half years. 

But when I look back, I actually can call it glorious. Work is about more than your environment and what you receive in return. At that KFC, I learned how to manage a team, how to deal with angry customers, and how to live a disciplined life as the manager of a store. I grew a lot personally. I also had the chance to invest in all of the employees there. To counsel them through different life situations, to help them develop discipline in their lives, and to create an environment of empowerment that inspired them to grow personally and professionally. I became a leader of a team of people who arguably needed guidance and leadership the most. 

This was my purpose at KFC. It wasn’t obvious immediately to me, but I soon realized that I was in that environment for reasons beyond simply earning money. And this is why the work was glorious--it wasn’t for me or my glory (I doubt this line item of experience has boosted my resume that much), but it was for the glory of God and what he was doing among the people at this KFC store. Most importantly, I had to learn that I’m not better than anyone else. I learned that I could not define success by anything other than my willingness to scrub toilets and handle slimy, raw chicken like everyone else. 

I’m excited to open Arrowhead’s new blog series on the workplace with this exhortation to see work as something radical. We spend a ton of time at work, up to 90,000 hours of our lives. We interact with people every day, from customers to co-workers. And in these human interactions, we have a huge opportunity to impact the world. For co-workers, these relationships are partially familial in the amount of time spent and the requirements of collegiality and loyalty. And typically, the manner of delivery for the product or service we’re offering ripples out to the community and the world around us. You and your co-workers decide how your product will, or will not, add value to the world. 

Even if you feel like your work is menial and you have little impact on the final product or service, your presence in the workplace can be transformational to the people around you. Are you checking in with your co-workers, asking them how they’re doing, what’s going on in their lives? Are you maintaining an environment that respects and empowers everyone around you? Are you sharing ideas and thoughts that serve to lift people up? For some of your co-workers or customers, you may be the brightest light they see that day. 

Once you begin to see work as a place to invest in the people around you, work may take on new meaning, even in the most challenging jobs. I’m not suggesting workplace investment as the only criteria for determining whether or not a job is suited for you. You can pursue work that inspires you while still being focused on leveraging your very presence in the workplace to be invested in the people around you. And that investment in your co-workers and even your customers and clients will ultimately impact many people beyond the workplace. 

We’re opening our series on the workplace with this article because I think it paints a vision of why we work and how we should think about our behavior at our jobs. If we’re people who live life on mission to impact our communities, then we need to align our time at work with that overall goal. Impact is not just something done at volunteer gigs or at church on Sunday. Impact is something that reaches into all of our interactions with other humans. 

That’s why, ultimately, this series is focused on helping you care for yourself as a worker and then equipping you to go out and be a light in your place of work, even if you’re managing a KFC in the middle-of-nowhere Virginia.

Branden S. Polk