Jack, 72, has had a varied and highly successful work life. Forced to drop out of full-time college for financial reasons, he worked at demanding jobs while pursuing his engineering degree at night (he eventually got a Master’s degree in the same way). He began working in “a really arcane area” in the electronics industry. He did well, but was denied a permanent position because his superiors thought – incorrectly – that his part-time degree was somehow inferior to a conventional one. This set-back proved to be an opportunity that shaped his career; he landed an excellent job in the airplane industry, which in the 50s was taking off (literally and figuratively).
Jack was thrown in with a hundred and fifty other employees, in an exciting, intense environment. And it planted the seed of the most important lesson he learned about work: Develop interpersonal skills. Jack’s views have even more weight because he worked his entire life in highly technical fields – the kinds that when you start talking about your job, people stare uncomprehendingly until their eyelids start to flutter. Nevertheless, it was the people skills that counted.
Our job was to make sure that the government got whatever it paid for. I was able to work at the top level of the company. At that time it was very, very hard to hire engineers, and I loved it. It was a completely different world. You’re just on your own with your wits, you’re dealing with people who have twenty, thirty years experience running departments with hundreds of people. It was enormously exciting. And it was scary and I loved to be in a little over my head. Right, you developed a cool under pressure, you develop a sense for not saying more than you had to, you developed a sense of being in command but being respectful of the other people’s positions.
When I asked about the key to his success, Jack made it clear that people often fail not because they don’t know their jobs, but because they don’t know people. He was known in his jobs as a problem-solver, and the more insoluable a problem seemed, the more likely it was to be handed to Ed. His people skills helped each time. He gave the following example.
In one of my jobs, they developed a new machine to replace the old ones, supposed to be four or five times more reliable. And it wasn’t looking that way. We were sending them it out into the field and the reports were coming back rom service, “Oh, it’s terrible, it’s really bad.” And I pondered and pondered and pondered and I thought, “Look, this can’t be.’ And there was acrimony between engineering and service, people weren’t communicating. It had to do with interpersonal issues, lack of communication.
I said, “This can’t be.” Something was fishy. So here’s what we’re going to do. I made a proposal, which I sent to the board. We’ve got to take several thousand of these reports from the field and we’ve got to have a team with field staffers, technical services, engineering, quality, manufacturing – bring everybody together. And we’ve got to go over every single one of these complaints and we have to classify it as to what the problem was, what’s the outcome, who’s responsibility it was. We’ve got to do this by service person, and by account, and whatever. And I had enough credibility that they agreed to do it. So we took five or six people, we went through thousands of these things. We laid the whole thing out. Low and behold, it was completely different from what everybody thought. My ability to bring people together helped solve the problem.
Jack attributes his ability to work so effectively with a wide range of employees, ranging from scientific experts to sales staff, to one basic principle: take yourself down a peg (or two). The idea is to focus on the others in the workplace as experts who need to be consulted, including (and perhaps especially) those who are lower in the hierarchy. The concept that one should enter a leadership position as the overseeing boss who knows best works far less well than a position of humility and willingness to learn from others.
Jack put it like this:
I think I had the attitude that I might have certain skills but mostly everybody here knows more than I do. Everybody. And that if I’m going to add value it’s going to be by making use of these people or by collecting information from them or marshaling what it is they’re doing. The last thing you want to do is assume you are superior. Everybody there is a genius, I knew nothing. I had a lot of innate skills which came out of my background, and I tried to diligently do my work. You really have to have the attitude that ‘I’m really going to honestly do my best to do a good job. And that doesn’t mean fudging it, doesn’t mean sucking up to anybody. It just means that whatever they give me to do, I’m going to try to do that to the best of my ability, working with whomever I have to work with.