Years ago, the business I was working for bought another business. I was chosen to be at one of the purchased plants as the leadership representative of the new company when the announcement was made. I considered it a privilege and an awesome responsibility–I’d been on the receiving end of these deals and knew how much stress and uncertainty they create for the new employees. I wanted to help set the right tone and ease their concerns from day one.
All factories have inherent safety risks, and this industry was no different. Every new employee in our business was shown a video with a dramatic title and equally dramatic footage of the terrible things which can go wrong if safety practices are not followed. My company practiced a constant vigilance on safety, but we knew from pre-purchase tours and the statistics they had shared that was not the case for the new business. Their safety record was multiple times worse than what we experienced in our own plants. We knew we had immediate work to do in that area. My boss, the president, made a decision that seemed like a nuisance at first. He had all of us bring our own safety equipment, including the standard hard hat, for our walks through the new plants. I was at a loss as to why this was necessary. I knew the plants had their own equipment, even if they didn’t use them consistently, plus it took up precious space in my luggage. I checked a larger bag than my normal carry-on and looked forward to seeing the new plant and meeting the new people.
I was right about the new team’s concerns. I was peppered with questions following the announcement and then one-on-one afterward…questions about me, their new company, rumors they’d heard. I did my best to be truthful and positive. I have no idea how successful I was at allaying their fears; there’s only so much you can do in a morning. A life lesson, however, occurred during the tour that followed. As I walked through the plant fully outfitted with my packed hard hat, goggles, and other protective gear, I immediately noticed that the facility’s management team leading me on the tour were themselves not fully protected. Most had some gear, but none had all. As the tour progressed slowly through the large, multi-story complex, I got a surprise. One by one, my tour guides would disappear briefly and return. That was not new from the many plant tours I’d been on, as supervisors see something they want to check on or correct. What was new was that when they returned, they were suddenly outfitted with a complete complement of safety equipment. I was in awe.
I shared what happened with my boss when I got home. Of course he had intended to send a very strong signal about a crucial company value from the beginning, and he was pleased at the evidence the message had been received. It was still a long journey to change the behaviors of the new employees and bring their safety record in line, but the tone was set from the outset. I learned a lot from that boss – he was one of the best I’ve had. But when I think about the lessons I learned from him, they were all the same theme: know the few things that are really important to you–your core values–and role model them. Over the years, he developed a long list of leaders under him who reached high-level positions in the company. I’ve since tried to follow his example at work, but his model also applies in life. I wish I still had that hard hat; it would provide a tangible reminder of the lesson to role model what you want to see. I don’t think I need it though – that day, I learned a more powerful lesson than those for whom the lesson was intended.
“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” –Tom Bodett