Wear Muddy Boots

My Dad would have been 99 this February 28th had he lived. He passed away nine years ago a few days short of his 90th birthday.

When I started my first management job for IBM in Pittsburgh, I called Dad to share my first day with him. He asked me to stand up and look down.

“What shoes are you wearing,” he asked.

“My black wingtips,” I answered.

“Wrong answer. You need to be wearing muddy boots.”

His message was that you don’t manage from behind a desk. You go out into the field. Talk to customers, vendors, suppliers, and employees who are all closer to the customer than you.

You learn by listening, asking what can we do better. You learn by being curious, asking the why and the how. Dad’s wisdom was in knowing that people love to tell their story, you just need to be smart enough to listen to it. And wise enough to act on it.

Dad was passionate about connecting disparate dots. I learned from him that if you benchmark with people, not necessarily in your line of work, you find approaches and lessons that more often than not you can take back to your world. I grow deeply concerned with employees who stop learning, stop being student of the business. I hold myself to that same standard. Markets never stay still, technologies are never static, and the operative word in continuous improvement is continuous.

His advice has served me well over the years. I spent 40 years in business working for both large and small firms and I have the privilege of serving on the boards of many others. Now that I am in the nonprofit world, his advice and thoughts are with me every day. Hire smart people, listen to them, and hold them and yourself accountable for results, not effort. Know the facts, but trust your gut.

Above all else, listen, question, problem solve your customers’ problems, not yours. If your entire reason for being is to solve your customers’ (read program participants’) real problems and meet their needs, all else will follow. Be willing to lead, but lead by coaching, not telling. Lead by example in your own conduct. Wear your muddy boots and hand them out to your people. Above all else, deliver on your promises. Communicate more than you think necessary to all your stakeholders. By your conduct, make your word your best and only currency.

I miss my Dad. He was an incredibly tough and strong-willed individual. I can’t say that all of my memories are good ones. He grew up in a different time, but the father, husband and man I am today is very much shaped by the experience of being his son. My brothers and I know his legacy lives with us, but it is not the only source of our legacy. We each get to make our own legacy, but we know that some of the tools we use are very much out of Dad’s toolbox.

The boots are in the mud room. Every day when I go to work, wherever I go to work, I put them on.

Happy Birthday, Dad.