“So you think you can run it?” the Chairman of the conglomerate I was working for post-Harvard Business School asked. He had just made a major investment in a food processing company in Jamaica. I was bored in the merchant banking subsidiary, and wanted a challenge.
“Absolutely” I replied with some incredulity, as before HBS I had successfully run my family’s door manufacturing business. I knew a thing or two about manufacturing, despite my tender age! I had no clue about food processing, but neither had I known much about the technicalities of making doors when I took over the family business. But I knew I could learn and learn fast.
And so, on a Tuesday morning in 1986, I started as the General Manager of a company that canned and bottled fruits and vegetables for the Jamaican, Caribbean, Canadian, UK and USA markets. I spent most of that week in my office, meeting with the team and with occasional forays on the factory floor. On Sunday morning, I received the phone call that would change my approach to leading people.
“Factory burn down you know” I heard my boss, Bob, state in his cool Scottish brogue.
There had been a fire at the plant that destroyed the office and damaged the rest of the building. For the next 6 months, while the office was being rebuilt and the factory being cleaned up and recommissioned, my office was a wooden desk in a corner of the small testing laboratory at the rear of the factory. I accessed it through the factory, past the canning and bottling lines or the yard, past tons of fresh fruit and vegetables being prepared for processing. It was intimate to say the least. But it provided me with accelerated learning about the operations, the systems and most importantly the wonderful people who worked there. We all quickly became a team. I was not “the boss” and they were not “the workers” – we were truly in this together. I got to know Django, the janitor, Locksley the lab technician, Verna, the supervisor and so many others as we forged together to rebuild.
Now, I don’t recommend a fire as part of any leadership curriculum. But here are 3 things I learned in that second week, that have stood me in good stead in running my own businesses and advising leaders:
- Be hopeful and positive. The workers were extremely worried about their jobs – would we rebuild the factory or just claim the insurance? It was my job to be positive and reassure them that we were going to rebuild and be back in production in the shortest possible time. And we were. Even without a disaster like a fire, in your 2nd week on the job, remember that people are nervous, wondering what’s going to happen and what changes you will make. Be positive and paint a hopeful picture of the future, even if you don’t yet have the details.
- Admit what you don’t know – I was blessed with the most wonderful Production Manager, Eddie, who had started in the same week as I did. He was a super-experienced food processing stalwart. I leaned on him and yielded to his advice on the technical aspects, as I did with the other members of the leadership team. They came to understand that I valued and respected their knowledge and expertise and that I was not there as some “know it all MBA-type”. It’s advice that I have always followed whether running other businesses, or in my consulting and executive coaching business. I always honour the wisdom of others.
- Spend as much time as possible in the trenches, really getting to know your team members, the operations, the customers, the suppliers. I was forced to, because of my new office location. Decades ago, executives at Hewlett-Packard coined the term “Management By Walking Around” – MBWA – to describe an approach of wandering around the workplace, in a seemingly unstructured way to observe, learn, deal with problems and get to know the culture and the people. And for them to see and know you. I truly believe it’s one of the most important things you can do, particularly in your early days. Just wander … and wonder: observe, ask questions, listen.
So by now you might be saying “But Marguerite, I have spent 2 weeks in my new job and I haven’t done any real work yet.” That fire, many years ago, taught me what my real work as a leader is – getting to know my team.