Tuesday, July 22, 2008


When we hire students for summer jobs or internships, how many of us really challenge the students with work assignments? How often do we give them “safe” assignments or menial work just because it is easy and risk-free to do so.

My last summer job, before graduating with my engineering degree, was working in a process control laboratory for a large multinational. Technically, my job was to fill in for the regular chemists while they were on vacation. The plant relied on the data from the lab to control its operations, so it was an important role in keeping the plant running efficiently.

I was especially excited because my employer trained me to operate a million dollar mass spectrometer to analyze the ore samples for trace minerals/metals. It was a new technology we hadn’t really learned about in school, but the actual operation was really not that complicated, since the machine did virtually all the work.

However, one evening, when I was on night shift, the mass spec would not operate. The chemist who had been working with it during afternoon shift told me he’d been having problems with it.

The tests needed to be run somehow to keep the plant operating, and the only alternative was to use “wet” analytical chemical tests, for which we had a manual, but on which I’d had no training or experience. I called in to the main lab at headquarters and explained the situation and asked if they could send someone to check my results because I was unfamiliar with the wet tests and wanted to be sure I was providing reliable data to the plant.

About halfway through the shift, a chemist finally came over from the main lab and began to check the results of my testing by duplicating the procedure. Fortunately, his findings corroborated mine, and I felt very relieved and we worked together for the balance of my shift. Afterwards, my supervisor commended me for coping with the challenges of that evening and ensuring the plant had reliable data to operate by.

What I took away from this experience was that, by entrusting me with an important function and leaving me to operate an expensive piece of equipment, my employer was taking a big risk. I think this instilled a sense of responsibility in me that helped drive me to ensure I didn’t let them down. Something did, in fact, go wrong, but they had a backup plan and it was well enough documented that, even without training, I was able to follow it.

Dealing with a challenge such as this one built my self-confidence, and the commendation from my supervisor reinforced this.

Now fast-forward to about 30 years later, and our design department was hiring a summer intern.

Our design department manager wanted to assign the student to “assist” the other designers with some pretty safe tasks. However, during our interviews with the student, we discovered she has learned how to operate the same CAD software we used, so I told the design manager I wanted her to be able to produce workable designs on our CAD system.

As the summer progressed, she started out by doing some basic designs and we gave her opportunities to do more creative projects. Most importantly, on one project for our parent company, we used one of her designs and she got to see the project through to completion. She became very proficient with our software and was pumping out basic designs faster than the permanent staff. We were very pleased with her work.

As the summer came to a close, we took her out for an interview over lunch. During this, she mentioned enthusiastically that she felt she was the luckiest member of her class because she actually got to produce real designs. Most of her classmates were given menial tasks and never got the hands-on experience she got with us. She would have no hesitation about coming back with us for her next work term.

Internships or summer jobs are supposed to help students apply the skills they have learned in school and hopefully learn some new skills as well. These positions are an excellent way for an employer to assess a student as a potential permanent employee – but only if we take some risks and honestly give them the opportunity to apply their skills.

From the example I cited at the outset of this posting, that summer job in the lab helped me develop as a person as well as learn some very new technology. I suppose that experience influenced me, as a manager, to give our student designer a similar opportunity. That risk was rewarded with a very productive, motivated employee who exceeded our expectations.

Isn’t this what we all want?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


When I was in high school, we had three academic streams. There was the truly academic stream for students destined for university. There was a more occupational stream for those students whose goal was simply to get a high school diploma. Then there was the 2-year occupational stream, with a focus on trades.

I trust you can sense a hierarchy of some kind in the descriptions. There certainly was among the students, with the university-bound students looking down on the OC-squad, as they were called, as somehow inferior.

How things change!

When I was in school, as most other kids do, I took shop – and was terrible at it. I’m left-handed. My father didn’t really have a shop at home to practice, and I think I’m not especially mechanically inclined – hard to admit for an engineer!

When I moved into industrial/B2B marketing, I spent increasingly more time in the plant trying to understand how things were done.

I found I came to admire the skills among the personnel on the shop floor.

Pressmen who could make fine adjustments on a $5MM printing press to get just the right color. By eye, they could tell whether an image was too warm (red), too dirty (black) or too cool (blue).

Gluer operators who could transform a die-cut sheet into a complex carton. They had to work out how to make each fold and to do it at as high a speed as possible.

Technicians who could fix a laptop, or build a plasma generator or get your car started – sometimes all of these in the same day.

Carpenters who can make perfect joints, or get a smooth finish on a wood project.

Plumbers who fix leaky toilets, install new pipes and faucets (without leaking).

In the neighbourhood where I live, we have a mix of “professionals” – i.e., lawyers, accountants, etc. – as well as some very well off trades people. The trades people are mostly contractors who are kept busy doing renovations on high-end homes, and are being rewarded handsomely for their skills.

I now see ads promoting the benefits of entering a trade. The school system used to be biased towards developing students for university and failed to produce enough trades people to meet the growing demand in an era in which the long-term skilled workers were retiring or leaving the system.

I play in a blues band, and what I see in this is that we each have our respective instrument to play and, if we all do our part, it sounds wonderful. Notwithstanding the occasional one-man-band busking on the street, each of us has to be proficient in his instrument. No one of us could do it all. We learn a little bit about each of the other instruments – not so much to become experts, but to understand the language unique to each instrument so we can make intelligent suggestions about what might work.

The bottom line is we ALL have our roles to play in making the organization work. It really is hard to say that one role is more important than the others. Despite what accountants might try to do to monetize the value of each job role, the truth is that if one job is not being done well, it can ruin things for the rest.

So let’s respect what each other has to contribute and help them do the best job they are capable of. All of us will benefit.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Leadership is part of what management is all about, and managers are usually assumed to be the ones who make the decisions on how the organization will be run.

I guess my feeling is that leadership needs to have a strong element of facilitating - as opposed to merely directing – and with a consultative element as well. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

When I moved from consumer goods to industrial marketing, part of my job involved managing two sales reps – both 25 year veterans of the packaging industry.

When we had our first meeting together, you could feel the tension in the air as these two sales reps felt out their new “boss”.

I started out by admitting I had only a limited knowledge of the packaging industry. If people had thought bubbles like in cartoons, you probably would have seen something like “Yeah! Right!” But when I asked what I could do to help them in their jobs, the tension melted away and they both opened up.

One was our pricing manager, and he needed help getting estimates done as well as having a sounding board for pricing. The other was a non-native English speaker, and, while he was a successful rep, had problems making presentations. Both also asked for help in getting orders processed.

In return for my assistance in the areas we agreed on, one took me around to meet the customers and the other one took me under his wing and tried to teach me everything he knew about packaging. I found ways to fast track estimates and we got new business because we were able to quote within 24 hours of receiving the RFQ. We got on well and worked together well as a team.

Later, when I moved to another company, I managed to get one of these reps to join the new company because he had extensive experience in one of the vertical markets we served, and I was able to get another colleague to join as well in our sales team. While the second rep went on to another competitor, we continued to get together for lunch on a regular basis.

The other example came up at this second company.

One of my guys was somewhat stalled with a prospect. They had some samples of our product, but had never gotten around to running them so we could qualify as a supplier. We met with the customer and got assurances the samples would be tried, but things dragged on.

A major trade show was coming up, and we knew the customer would want to have some samples of their product to exhibit and distribute at the show, so we offered to run a free trial order for them. The customer responded by saying that, although they had five suppliers of our kind of product, none of them had made such an offer and therefore they wanted to go with us – on one condition. They asked us to bill them for the order – not run it free – and to consider it our first order with them.

When we got the order and the customer’s graphics, we got together with the press crew who were going to be running the job. We told them this was a promising new customer and we wanted to make a good impression, and we asked the crew how they wanted to run the job. There were some details in the graphics which could be challenging for the printing process, which were a bit of a concern. The crew suggested the best materials sources from their experience and how the graphics should be set up.

When the customer received the order, we got a phone call regarding the job. Was there something wrong with the product or the delivery, we asked. No, the customer had specified the job be printed flexographically (a very cost-effective printing technology) but we had printed the job via rotogravure (a more expensive, high-definition way of printing.) I assured the customer we had followed his instructions and the job was printed flexographically. The customer told us this was the best flexographic printing he had seen: it was so clean and clear he thought it could only have been done via the more expensive rotogravure technology.

We ended up doing a lot more work for that customer, and we had a very proud press crew. Interestingly, even though we operated in a unionized environment, we never heard any comments or experienced any interference from the union reps. I think everyone focused on doing the best job possible and, if there was any breach of the collective agreement for the way we involved the crew, we never heard about it.

I believe most workers – white or blue collar – want to do an excellent job, and part of the role of management is to help them achieve that goal. This means ensuring the employees have the information or tools they need to accomplish this. More importantly, it involves asking them what the impediments are to excellent performance and helping clear those roadblocks.

Because managers frequently are rotated through a variety of roles, they may not have the time to become technical experts in every one of these roles. Unless they have been poorly trained, experienced workers know their jobs in depth because they’re doing them every day. They’ve had the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t, so they actually are a knowledge resource waiting to be tapped.

When we try to provide what we think is “direction”, but it runs contrary to what our employees know to be the right way to do things, we don’t come across as good managers.

When we consult our employees to get their input on processes, we are practicing delegation in a way. Delegating means assigning tasks to those most capable or experienced to complete them, and typically is used in the context of white collar workers. With shop floor employees, respecting their skills and asking for their suggestions will usually be rewarded with ideas based on successful experience, and builds respect for their managers.
Leading by following the direction or suggestions of our “subordinates” is a winning proposition.