I’ve worked in manufacturing businesses nearly all of my career, most of it in the food industry. I love food plants; it’s fascinating to see how things are made. I’m amazed at the creative ways engineers have found to efficiently process and package chicken nuggets and canned pet food and bags of flour. It’s a marvel.
My team plays a support role. We work in the office and collect money and pay bills and provide data to the teams actually running the plants. Most of the time we stay in the office to get our work done. Sometimes we go out to the plant floor. When we do, we suit up with PPE like everyone else, including safety goggles and steel toe boots.
I once worked with a guy who regularly challenged his team with a question: how clean are your steel toes? His simple question was a powerful leadership lesson, that to truly support the business, you need to know the business, and you can’t learn the business from behind your desk. You have to see the challenges first hand to know how to help solve them. And you have to build relationships out on the floor, to show that you care enough to go out where it’s loud and dirty and there’s no air conditioning. You have to get your boots dirty.
One of the reasons I like food businesses is the practical, down-to-earth culture that goes with it. As I learned in the meat-packing business, it’s hard to be pretentious when you’ve got blood on your boots. There are a lot of industries like that: unglamorous but essential businesses providing the critical products and services for our everyday lives, like my friend who merchandises industrial plumbing products, or an attorney friend who works at a quirky egg company with a mission to “advance happiness,” or another who leads strategy for a global farm implement company. We know that the value is created in the fields, on the farms, and on the plant floor. It’s important to regularly challenge ourselves, “how clean are my steel toes?”
“Jesus came into this world not as a philosopher or a general but as a carpenter. All work matters to God.” —Timothy Keller