Wednesday, September 23, 2009
As a reward for all our hard work in Puerto Rico evaluating our client's environmental performance, Jeff Schleider and I treated ourselves to a visit to El Yunque National Park. Truly an amazing place. It was a last minute decision I am so glad we made. What a perfect ending to a very successful trip. Hopefully the first of many.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
We got to the small chamber of commerce office and the secretary showed us into the conference room. I guess I was expecting a bigger crowd. It was just me and Kevin. After the secretary showed us the mailing that needed to be sent out, I arranged the stacks of fliers in order and got down to business. Kevin’s eyes went wide and he smiled broadly when I started rapidly and efficiently pulling, folding, stapling, stuffing and stamping, with a steady rhythm, buzzing through the piles.
I asked him why we were the only ones there and he said “Well, Karen wanted me to have a talk with you.”
So we talked. The work we were doing seemed to take all the pressure off; and Kevin appeared to be changing his mind about me as we talked and worked. You see, it was my first “real” job after college, and two years in the Peace Corps. Looking back, it was simple. Get the payables and all supporting documents assembled and approved, key them in before the deadline, and send out the checks. But I never seemed to beat the deadline. Fact was, that wasn’t what was taking all my time. Even though when I started working there the year before, I didn’t know a thing about their systems, within six months everyone there was asking me to figure out their printer, copier, spreadsheet, database, network, phone, fax and computer problem. And I never said no to anyone who asked for help. Kevin started to get the picture. Accounting just wasn’t for me. That being said, we agreed that I needed to prioritize my work, and focus on my duties. And say no once in a while.
I’ll never forget him telling me “it’s a nicer place to work since you came on board, Mark, but you have to get your work done.” Within a few months I was promoted to be a manager trainee, which changed the direction of my career forever.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
He called me from his hotel and asked me where I would like to pick him up. Knowing I didn’t know my way around there yet, he offered to meet me at the airport. Tall, straight and strong, jeans, boots, and a button down long sleeve denim shirt, baseball cap, mustache and cigarette, he was the epitome of a construction manager. One of the first things he said about the Ticos (Costa Ricans) was "They’re good people, and I like ‘em". I asked him a lot of questions, trying to figure out where he fit in, and what was expected of me. Wanting to ease my concerns, he told me "my number one priority is to make sure you succeed". We drove on to the site and he introduced me to Milton. It had been a few months since Skip’s last visit, and as we went for a tour of the facility, Skip started asking Milton lots of questions, about properties, contracts, equipment, construction, and each question had a follow up. Milton hesitated at each question, choosing his words carefully, then broke the tension by saying, "Skip, do you want to learn everything on the first day?" with a smile and a sideways glance. Skip laughed at that and said "Why, yes I do, Milty".
I had a crash course on the key issues as Skip saw them that month, and grew very attached to him. He moved into the hotel I was staying at and I drove him back and forth to work every day. He would be waiting for me by the car every morning, seven days a week, at 6:30 AM. I never kept him waiting long, but I never beat him out the door either. He would be grumpy if I kept him waiting, but he would get over it shortly. Boy, did he hate my driving. He’s not the first. Guess I should be more careful. He was all business at the jobsite, and not opposed to raising his voice to get what he needed. After work, he took me to his favorite bar, and made me feel at home. In a few weeks he taught me more about operating landfills than I had learned in the five years I worked in the business.
One afternoon he had me drive him up a dirt road into the hills on the other side of the site to a very humble little gathering of houses. I probably would have called them shacks if I didn’t know any better, but I do. We had hardly stopped the car when a bunch of smiling kids around the age of ten surrounded us. Skip got out and got a bag of brand new ball caps out of the trunk.
I must digress a bit here and go over some ball cap issues for the uninitiated. Company hats are easy to get your hands on; they’re cheap and companies love to have you wear them. Guy like Skip probably politely accepted, and got rid of, more company hats than some folks will see in their whole lives. The hats Skip gave those kids that day were not company hats. These were the kind of hats you bought at the mall, which probably cost at least fifteen bucks each; with full color team emblems of all Skip’s favorite teams, starting with the Buckeyes, of course.
Skip came to Costa Rica four times during the year I worked there, and spent about a month each time. The operation was an incredible challenge, with tropical rains, difficult clay and gravel, and large volumes of trash. Equipment breakdowns were always a nightmare too, owing to the scarcity of repair parts. He would get frustrated at times, and show it, and I never saw a bunch of operators, mechanics and engineers strive to please someone as much as everyone tried to make Skip happy. The site was always in much better shape when Skip left, and he always made sure the operators had a plan of action to follow. Sometimes he would proudly point out an initiative that the operators had taken and say, "You see that, they’re thinking. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I want them to come up with their own ideas to fix this place. That’s progress."
A year after I left Costa Rica, I called Skip from Mississippi, where I had been transferred to work in a sales position for the company. He was in Florida working at a new facility. I asked him what he was doing, and he said "I’m looking for a manager to take this place over". I told him I’d be interested. I got a call from the president of the company later that day.
(to be continued)
Friday, June 20, 2008
Go get the salt. I'll wait right here.
My pride didn't get in the way of the right action on that cold morning. I followed the instructions that the shop steward bellowed at me without a second thought.
Before I set the alarm clock the night before, I knew there would be ice around all of the entrances that morning. Freezing rain the night before left a real mess for us to deal with, and the persistent gale force winds in the port of Newark didn't show any signs of letting up. It was pitch black when I made it to the office that day, and as I suspected, the asphalt ramp leading to the employee's locker room was slick with ice.
It was Robert, the shop steward who knew the contract better than I, any lawyer, or union representative, the man who distrusted me, the company, the government, and just about everyone else, helping the elderly employees navigate the ice in front of the entrance. As he promised, he stayed right there, making sure no one slipped, until I got back with the salt spreader to do battle with the ice.
All the managers on the conference call two months before will never forget the outrage of our boss when one of the managers couldn't specify whether an employee slipped on grease or ice, a few hours after it happened. With a mixture of guilt and relief that we weren't the focus of his ire, we all listened as Matt said that just wasn't good enough. His managers needed to know exactly how their employees got hurt, and certainly within a few hours.
On the weekly safety conference call later that day, Matt spoke after I related the story of Robert and the ice. “You see...That's what its all about...Its not management and union, workers and bosses...its people. Watching out for each other. Caring about each other. That's how you keep your people from getting hurt.”
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
At my previous post, I was used to solicitous smiles and a friendly greeting from my employees. I worked with the same people for many years, knew their wives and kids, and prided myself on my flexibility when it came to their needs. The hardest part was when they requested extended time off to visit family. It was their culture. They were Mexican and in their own childhoods they would go al norte to work the fields during the harvest and then go back to Mexico. Somehow, they could make enough money during the harvest to live for many months back home. So they came to me and asked me for six weeks vacation. In pairs. That would be as much as a quarter of the site's workforce, but I would make it work. I would tell them to be careful and come back safe. Sometimes they wouldn't come back. I felt burned when that happened, indignant that I paid their vacation in advance, and had to pay for their unrecovered uniforms, but I didn't take that out on the next guy who asked for time off to visit la familia. It was their culture.
I had lots of visitors from various headquarter offices during my first few months as a manager in Florida. The corporation was still being formed, and responsibilities were being assigned, and lots of folks wanted to come see what was happening out in the field. Once a pretty accountant came to visit with my boss. We took her out to the working face, where the trucks were dumping, and the compactor was pushing mountains of debris. We drove up to one of my Hispanic workers. The guys still weren't used to a gringo who spoke Spanish, so it was easy to get a laugh out of them, and that has always been my favorite thing to do. I don't remember what I said, but he grinned when I spoke to him, and sheepishly looked at the pretty blond in the truck with us. As we drove away I remarked how great these guys are, how careful they were with the equipment, how hard they worked in such difficult conditions, how they always used their safety gear, and how appreciative they were of the benefits like uniforms and steady work. Not long after that my boss told me he heard her commenting that at the very next site she went to visit, the monolingual manager was griping about the Hispanic workers, saying they were dumb and lazy. She righteously told him that Mark Hart doesn't think they're dumb or lazy. My boss repeated the story with pride to anyone who would listen.
In Brooklyn, I started to feel guilty at expecting the workers to smile when they saw me. They didn't care that I spoke Spanish, or that I had lived in Honduras, where many of them were from. Morale was not high at that plant. The plant was facing severe economic challenges, and the workers were feeling the pinch. They were not getting any overtime, and the majority of them were just barely earning above the poverty line. I started to understand the reasons behind the stony stares I got from them.
Early one morning during my first week there, with the plant running at full speed, I was on the production line, trying to figure out how the sorting equipment worked. I was waiting for Abdoul, the shift supervisor, to show up, not being used to arriving before my lead man. I suppose I expected him to come in with some story as to why he was late, but he came in at 7:30, with his usual sauntering gate. As he ascended to the working area, on the suspended platform, I saw him say hello to the men he passed.
But he didn't just say hello. The workers were at the conveyor belt, and had to keep their heads down to do their work. Abdoul waited for each worker to look up, and waved at each of them with a closed fist, palm towards them, said each of their names, nodded and said “all right”. One by one they each nodded back. I was moved by his gesture of solidarity with the workers, his acknowledgment of their humanity, and the mutual recognition of their shared circumstances. He did this with each and every employee, and called out to the loader operators on the radio. He didn't just make eye contact, he made a human contact.
I never forgot that lesson. From Abdoul I learned how important it is to acknowledge the humanity of every one I passed. Look them in the eye, make sure they saw me looking, and let them know I was there for them. Not always an easy thing to do with the varying pressures of management weighing down on me. But it became a pleasure. It got me out of my own head and into the real world where I could be of service to my fellow man. And it made my workplace a better place to be.