From Loathing to Love

Continued from previous post…

His name was Jim and his reputation preceded him. I couldn’t stand the guy even before I met him. And in a rare twist of reality, his first impression was even worse than my negative preconception. He was loud, brash, blunt, cocky and laughed a little too hard at his own jokes. He was our maintenance man.

But my description above is but a list of abstractions; they mean nothing unless you knew Jim. If you need a visual image, think the stereotypical middle-aged white guy, the “ugly American” in a foreign country wearing a straw hat, red plaid shirt, kelly green shorts, black socks and brown wingtip loafers. He expects everyone to speak English, and when they don’t, he just talks louder. He’s quick to give his opinion, argues just for the fun of it, and never misses an opportunity to wisecrack. And as a maintenance man, he loves to tell people that certain things “just can’t be done”, then later figures out how to do it, just like the Scotty character on Star Trek, albeit without the Celtic charm.

My first impression of Jim was disheartening to say the least. I had just been hired to run the plant, and desperately needed this guy on my side to implement the improvements needed to get our plant to the next level.

When I first encountered Jim at the daily production meeting, I was immediately convinced we’d never click. He represented everything I didn’t like about my own culture. He was a far cry from the friends and mentors I respected most. I can’t tell you how discouraged I was after that first meeting. He was looking like a mountain-sized speed bump on the road to turning the plant around.

Unfortunately I had forgotten the old adage about not judging a book by its cover.

I remember exactly when my opinion of Jim changed. I’d been tiptoeing around our differences, doing my best to be diplomatic. The whole Japanese harmony thing had rubbed off on me I suppose, hence my avoidance of confrontation.

But on this particular day I was ticked off. Word had gotten back to me that Jim was shooting off his mouth about me not making my subordinates accept responsibility for their mistakes. Jim didn’t report to me, but I felt it was inappropriate for another manager, who was supposed to be working on the same team, to publicly undermine my management approach. It was time to address the issue.

As fate would have it, Jim showed up at my office later that day, catching me in a rare, “no-more-Mr.-nice-guy” moment. Seizing the opportunity I confronted him, knowing it would catch him off guard. I was resigned to the possibility that our talk might create an irreparable rift but felt I had exhausted all other options. I don’t remember my exact words, but the gist of my message was that I had heard the comments he had been making, and resented his attempts to undermine my credibility.

He was caught off guard. But responded that he had been saying these things because he believed them to be true, citing specific incidents in which I hadn’t “written up” some operators who had passed defects. He was also unhappy with one of the Industrial Engineers who worked for me, because he wasn’t getting any of his projects done.

I let him rant and listened. I didn’t agree with his belief that operators needed to be “written up” after every mistake they made, although I had to agree with his assessment of my Industrial Engineer, a story for another day. (I had been bending over backwards trying to salvage the engineer, a very smart man who wasn’t producing results: his strength was analysis and planning; his shortcoming was that he just wasn’t good at coordinating projects through fruition. I was trying to offset his weakness by pairing him with my most prolific “doer”, but had only been getting limited results.)

After Jim was done talking I told him bluntly that if he had any issues with me or my management style, that he should man up and talk to me directly, not behind my back. I acknowledged that his assessment of my engineer was spot on, but we were not on the same page in terms of how to motivate production associates to get involved in our improvement initiative. I added that we (Jim and I) were getting paid a lot more than the associates, so we had a heavier burden of responsibility to bear: our job was to provide the conditions that made our subordinates’ success inevitable, not beat them up. Then I asked him to think about the notion that responsibility rolls uphill and partner with me in accepting that responsibility.

His reaction to my unexpected bluntness was equally unexpected; lowering his voice he said very sincerely, “I never thought about that before. You make a good point. I’m sorry if I acted that way.”

He said more than that, but it’s all I remember because it was not at all the reaction I had anticipated. This brash, cocky, obnoxious pit bull had suddenly become humble and reflective. For a very brief moment there, the universe was amiss. And suddenly I liked and respected the guy.

This experience was unprecedented for me. It’s the first time ever that I went from loathing to respect in 5 seconds. From that point on our relationship began to grow, and my respect grew into admiration and eventually love. Over the next several years we became very close, the most unlikely alliance and friendship one could imagine.

Now I’m not implying that Jim suddenly started acting like a humble, self-effacing Confucian gentleman. He continued his loud, brash, wisecracking ways. But he had allowed me to open his unsightly book cover, and glimpse the sincere, humble, authentic man that he really was. And it made all the difference in the world.

As I alluded to in the previous post, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. When our employer fell on hard times, we jointly decided to accept the responsibility “rolling up” to us, by requesting top management lay off both of us.  About a year and a half later, Jim died of cancer.

I miss my loud, obnoxious maintenance-man buddy. He was an irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind friend, and his untimely death broke my heart. He taught me so much about not only technology and running a factory, but also about the value of being sincere, authentic and humble. Ten years later his memory still compels me to open new books, even those with covers easy to misjudge.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

2 responses to “From Loathing to Love

  1. Aloha Tim! Really enjoying these business experience posts. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Funny how we feel we have permission to openly dislike loud, brash overconfident oafs, when they are just as likely to be thoughtful, kind and even delicate in their own way once we get past that unappealing veneer. This story is too sad, Tim. Jim’s premature death is painfully unfair. How nice his memory lives on in your thoughts and actions!

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