I’ll never forget his hands…
They were enormous. Scarred and scaled from years of manual labor, yet giant, full, and almost soft…like oversized Mickey Mouse gloves, but on a human. Attached to those hands was a mountain of a man named Dallas – the yard manager at Western Pneumatics, a medium-sized wood products manufacturing company located in the industrial area of Eugene, Oregon, and the site of my first “real” job.
Dallas, it turns out, was a lot like his hands – roughshod, colossal, calloused, yet tender. He was a sweetheart of a guy, who took me under his wing and at the end of my summer tour at Western Pneumatics taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my career. It all started with a tape measure.
My role at Western Pneumatics was what was lovingly referred to as a “grunt” – an odd job specialist, who was frankly nothing more than an extra set of hands. I was young, green, and thankfully not afraid of hard work, so I bounced around the expansive fabrication shop organizing and cleaning material, polishing parts, stamping pieces which would ultimately come together to form industrial filters and chippers for the wood products industry. After a month, the powers-that-be realized I was responsible and capable enough to work one of the giant forklifts housed on the “yard” – a barren landscape which felt like the size of Arizona, dotted with piles of raw material ready to be picked and delivered to a small shack on the property where they would be cut to size, and brought in to whatever department needed them at that time. The headmaster of that tiny shack, and keeper of the saw, was Dallas.
Here’s how it worked: Dallas and I hung out in the shack during the day, basically talking shit. Current events, jokes, other employees, other companies…nothing was off limits. Then, we’d receive an order for parts from one of the manufacturing teams. Dallas would give me a list of raw materials (half-inch angle iron, six-inch round iron tubing, fourteen-inch flat iron, etc.), and I’d jump on the forklift and head out to the yard to retrieve the items on the list. Once everything was gathered, I’d bring it all back to Dallas where we’d load everything onto a large conveyor belt leading to the material saw where they’d be cut to specific measurements as determined in the initial order. Lather, rinse, repeat…all day long.
We were loading a long piece of angle iron onto the conveyor belt, and Dallas yells at me from across the shack, “hey buddy, measure this to sixteen and seven sixteenths”. I grabbed my tape measure (part of my you-have-a-real-job-now-so-look-the-part starter kit), and unfurled it a couple feet, and stared blankly. Dallas, after a handful of seconds looks at me and says, “hey Nick, do you know how to read a tape?” Now I knew that reading a tape measure to these guys is like breathing – they’ve done it all their lives. But me – a banker’s kid nonetheless – never really had to read a tape. So there I am in-between stares half-assedly replying “ummm….yeah, I know how to read a tape.”
Dallas, beaming his thousand-watt gap-toothed smile as he bounces over to me, plops his catchers-mitt hand on my shoulder, and says in a calm, velvety half-whisper “hey baby, if you don’t know how to read a tape, tell me, and I’ll show you how to read the goddamn tape”.
I bow my head sheepishly and say, “I don’t know how to read a tape.”
“No problem baby!” he exclaims. In one motion, he whips out three feet of tape and says, “just count the tick marks – these are quarters, these are eighths, and these are sixteenths – if you ever get confused, just count them up.”
“What’s this?” he says pointing down around the seventeen-inch mark.
“Seventeen and, um, five eights”, I say.
“You got it! If you get lost, just count up the ticks and you’re golden.” He slaps me across the back, and we get back to work.
Twenty-two years later, and that story still resonates as a defining lesson in my career. See, Dallas didn’t have to take the time to show me how to read the tape. I was a rookie, a greenhorn, a grunt – he could have just called me an idiot and forced the foreman to shuttle me to another department…but he gave me the benefit of the doubt and took two seconds to teach me a huge lesson. It wasn’t about the remedial task of reading the tape….it was about taking the fear out of asking questions, about proactively killing the I-don’t-know monster from under the bed of your teammates, about leading and making sure that all those on your team are on the same page, and it was truly about reiterating the golden leadership rule that there are no dumb questions.
I’ve retold the Dallas story to countless direct reports over the years. Whenever I can sense that somebody is too embarrassed or scared to ask what is assumed to be a dumb question, I say, “have I told you the story about the guy who taught me to read a tape measure?” You look confused when the team says ‘KPI”? Tape measure story. Can’t remember the 4-Ps? No problem, tape measure story. Good leaders know that the problem isn’t that your team doesn’t know something, it’s that they’re scared to ask. Good leaders remove that fear. Good leaders foster a ‘there are no dumb questions’ environment. Good leaders teach their team how to read a tape.
Dallas taught me that 22 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. That and those freak-show hands.