My First Real Job
Every few years, in my dreams, I relive an incident from my first real job. At age 14, I was eligible for a work permit in 1960’s New York City. I obtained my permit and got a Saturday job working at the largest (five floors) hobby store in the city. It was located in one of the posh downtown shopping areas and had, among other things, a functioning model railroad display that had every possible bell and whistle (literally) and occupied a significant part of the model railroading floor of the building.
My job was in the fifth-floor office area. I was responsible for operating the switchboard and doing other office jobs between connecting phone calls. The business was owned by two brothers, one very mellow and one very gruff. They alternated being in the office on Saturdays, and usually the fifth-floor occupants on Saturday were one of them and me. As a young teenager, I found them both intimidating, especially Brother Gruff.
On the first Saturday of this still-vivid memory, it was me and Brother Gruff. For those too young to know, here is how I recall the switchboard working. When a call would come in, one of the outgoing trunk lines would light up. I would plug a cord into that line and answer the call. Once I determined whom the call should be routed to, I plugged another cord into that extension and dialed the extension on a rotary dialer to connect the call.
My problems started when I dialed Brother Gruff’s phone while trying to connect a call to a similar, but different, extension. He came out of his office and assertively told me to be more careful because there was no call on his line. I sheepishly apologized and then proceeded during the course of the day to misconnect numerous other calls around the building. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong; it was well beyond my first day on the job. When, late in the afternoon, I made a second wrong connection to Brother Gruff, he told me in no uncertain terms that if it happened again, it would be my last day working for him. I went home shaken and afraid to come to work the following Saturday. I didn’t know how to correct my mistakes.
The following Saturday, there was a note at the switchboard and a small gift certificate for use in the store. The note was a handwritten apology from Brother Gruff, in which he thanked me for my hard work and explained that the errors continued on Monday with the full-time switchboard operator. It turned out that the rotary dialer was shorting and needed replacement.
The immediate impulse for the boss to yell at me was certainly not the hallmark of an organization using the Baldrige Excellence Framework (which didn’t exist then). However, whenever I reflect on those two memorable Saturdays, more Baldrige-based “lessons” come to mind. Here are a few of them:
- The importance of transparency — and transparency starts at the top. There is great value in a leader being transparent about the cause of problems not being personal performance of employees.
- Good leaders are accountable for and admit to their mistakes. The personal note from Brother Gruff with the apology admitted to his mistake in berating me when the misconnections occurred.v
- The importance of senior leaders’ participation in providing rewards and recognition. There is nothing like a personal note from the boss.
- There is an old saying that a poor worker blames their tools. This switchboard was my first lesson that workers aren’t “poor” and that the problem most likely is a lack of process or a bad tool supplied to the worker. That was the initial, formative basis for Hertz’ Razor, although I didn’t know it at the time.
- Good leaders and good employees manage by fact. When an unexpected error occurs (especially when it occurs repeatedly over a short period of time), it is time to use quality tools to analyze for possible causes and not jump to a conclusion about the cause.
- Good leaders build trust within the organization. Trust is not built by a senior leader sitting in their office and coming out only to inspect and berate. A good leader does ongoing rounding to measure the pulse and needs of the organization.
I could continue, but I hear the phone ringing!
Originally posted on Blogrige by Harry Hertz.
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8.2.1 Leaders communicate with employees
9.5.2 Manage team performance
9.7.2 Provide mechanisms for internal communication
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