As I was working my way through my Ph.D. program, I didn’t know that the skills I learned from waitressing would prove their own education. For several years I waited tables at La Trattoria in Bloomington, Indiana, a fairly high-end restaurant where most of the employees were university students. It was a great job at the time. It paid better than most office or retail jobs, it had flexible hours, and I was on my feet so much that I didn’t have to watch my weight. Nonetheless, I wasn’t sad when I graduated and moved on to professional work.

Years later when I went back to school to get my MBA, I realized that some of my best business insights came from my waitressing skills. Here are some examples of my hard-earned waitress wisdom:

8 skills learned from waitressing

  1. Pay attention to the signals of what your customers want. Some customers want a chatty server, while others want you to take their order and leave them alone. Do it right and you’ll get better tips. The same goes when you are working with high-end clients. Learn to read the room and respond appropriately.
  2. Be nice to people’s children. I used to carry crayons and crackers in my apron pocket to keep the kids happy. The parents really appreciated it. Now I am always willing to meet with people’s kids to talk about how to navigate their careers. And the parents still really appreciate it.
  3. Help out your colleagues. Sometimes one section of the restaurant was super-busy and the server was really slammed. Even though I wasn’t going to benefit directly from providing great service to someone else’s table, I was building reciprocal relationships that would pay off when it was my turn to be overwhelmed. The same give-and-take works in business leadership.
  4. Treat your assistants really well. We had bus people who set and cleared tables, filled water glasses, and generally helped out. They were paid considerably less than we were. We had total discretion as to how much of our tips were shared with them. I was by far the best tipper in the restaurant, and as a result my tables got great service and everyone benefitted. Savvy business executives know they are only as good as their team and they reward them accordingly.
  5. Learn how to be subservient. There are times when you just have to accept that you are in a low-status role and deal with it. That doesn’t mean you have to accept abuse, but you do have to take a certain amount of disrespect. Even now, there I times when I have to knuckle under to a client and I try to do so with grace.
  6. Being a top earner requires both hustle and skill. When I first started waitressing, there were a couple of servers who consistently earned better tips than the rest of us. I figured they were getting some kind of special treatment, being assigned to the best tables. But within six months I had figured out the tricks of the trade and become one of the top earners. It’s about working hard and working smart.
  7. Don’t be afraid to sell. Offer that cappuccino and the second glass of wine. The customer can always say no.
  8. Be thoughtful and generous to people in service roles. The job is harder than it looks, and most servers are trying hard to please you. Compliments are nice, but tips are better.

It didn’t feel like learning at the time, but I’m still grateful for the skills I acquired waitressing. Do you have a job in your past that taught you some important lessons? Let us know at

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