Diving in at the deep end of people management
33 years ago, I was a new graduate working for a large British highly traditional engineering manufacturing company. When I say ‘traditional’, younger readers might not be familiar with the work environment in the early 1980s, and older ones may have forgotten exactly what it was like. This was the era of powerful trade unions, multiple work canteens/restaurants entry to which depended on your ‘status’ within the company, locked doors to the suite of directors’ offices, an ‘us & them’ culture, workers vs management, interest rates c.15%, high inflation, huge industrial unrest.
At the age of 22, I was appointed to the role of shop floor supervisor, responsible for managing a section of 30 people operating large complex automated turning machines. These were people who had been working there since they were 14 or 15 years old, and several had more than 40 years service. How were they going to react to a new boss – a spotty graduate with next to no experience of the real world?
There was only one course of action that I felt I could take: not to try to be clever but instead to be upfront that I knew precious little about what they did and to ask them to teach me. So that’s what I did: donning a pair of overalls and safety glasses, and spending night shifts with the most skilled of the machine setters while they taught me all about their job. It gained me credibility and most importantly, because I showed them respect, in return they respected me. So when, for example, I had to give a formal warning to a pretty difficult and aggressive machine operator, there was no ‘us and them’ about it at all. In fact several of the setters (and the trade union rep in private) congratulated me, saying ‘it was about time someone did something about him’.
And when six months later it was time for me to move on to another part of my graduate training programme, I received a delegation of the more senior members of the section who came to tell me how disappointed they were that I was moving on and that I was ‘the best boss they’d ever had’. When you put that into the context of the industrial climate of the time, you might understand why that was one of the proudest moments of my early working life.
What I’d done wasn’t clever or complex; it was actually very simple. It’s a lesson I’ve adopted ever since:
- Don’t try to be someone you’re not;
- A bit of humility goes a long way;
- Be honest with yourself and with the people who work for you;
- Be genuinely interested in the work that they do; and
- Above all, truly respect the people who work for you.
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