“Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”
― Patrick Lencioni
Working well with others is one key to success.
I was straight out of Engineering school. I landed a job with a Fortune 500 aerospace company. The company hired a significant number of new graduates because they won a large contract to update legacy equipment.
Understand that engineering work is nothing like it is on cable tv where people graduate from school then become a fabulously rich engineer working on state of the art equipment. No. I was working as an associate engineer, which is a shit job.
Every day, I updated senior engineers’ old designs. Updating was work no one wanted to do, so the newest engineers were stuck with those jobs. To update old designs, an engineer needed to understand how the original designs worked, then understand how to implement new updates.
The engineer who provided the original drawings may or may not still be in your department. Sometimes there was no one to answer any questions. Once you understood the original and the update, you had to change either the circuit or mechanical parts (or both) to modernize the design.
Working with someone else’s design made this a challenging task. If the person forgot to draw a single line, or if the engineer modified something after the drawings were complete but did not capture the change your scheme would not work. You would need to, almost, start over once you figured out how the old design worked.
Your version of the project then had to be recertified and sometimes requalified. The process could take years.
Being the newest engineer was very frustrating. The good news was that I was older than the other new graduates. Better yet, my experience with chaotic people kept me coolheaded under fire.
Well, more coolheaded than the other associate engineers.
I had five design updates. I completed four of them. My boss approved those four. The fifth was another story. I could not figure it out. No matter what I did, every time I sent the thing to pre-test, it failed. I’d go back and re-read the old specs. Then I’d go and re-read the new specs. I’d figure out what I could change again, and I’d send the design update back down to the production build. It would still fail.
After twelve weeks of pure failure, frustration got the better of me, and I did something unusual. I went to the production floor and observe them testing my design.
When I went downstairs to meet with the production people, I accidentally came during their lunchtime. They were having a party, complete with cake, pizza, and soda. When I walked in, they invited me to join them.
I don’t think they recognized that I was an engineer. I came right in and shared their lunch. We talked and had a good time. Then, when lunch was over, one guy asked, “What are you down here for?”
“I’m Crowe,” I said. “I came down to see why my design keeps failing.”
They all burst out laughing. “Your design is bad. It will never work.”
“Well, you guys sent nothing back. All you sent me back was a report that said it failed.” I said.
“You never gave me any recommendations.”
“That’s not our job. Our job is to test it and tell you if it passed or failed.”
One guy took pity on me and said, “Listen, the reason your design will never work is that there’s another set of designs you need to consider lower down in the system.”
I was surprised.
“I reviewed all the documentation associated with this update, the docs said nothing about another system that could affect my design.”
They all laughed again. “No. You have to figure that out.”
I thought to myself, How can I figure out anything if nobody even gave me a hint of what to look for?
Out loud, I said, “What do you think I should do?”
There was dead silence. I stood there for a moment, looked at the production technicians again, and repeated my question.
“What do you think I should do?”
“Nobody asks us,” one of them said. “No one comes down here.”
“My design doesn’t work, I’m asking. I’m asking because I’m late. I can’t send the other four pieces out without this one. I’ve wasted so much time trying to figure this out. I would appreciate it if you guys would give me a hand.”
One guy repeated, “She’s late.” The others smirked and laughed.
If they thought sexual innuendo would make me go away, it didn’t. I was the only woman in many of my classes in college and had heard much worse from the university boys.
I laughed with them.
“The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work.” — Vince Lombardi Jr
They helped me fix my design. Working with production was fun. I had a dry sense of humor and a talent for making jokes. They didn’t see me as an engineer from upstairs, which helped me. When I sent the reworked schematics to test, my design change passed.
The production guys saw me as a kid. They were much older men. They liked the fact that I would come down and seek their advice. After they helped me once, I was like a stray cat that you fed, I kept coming back.
My designs got much better, and in the next nine months, every one of the design updates I turned in was approved.
My boss told me, “I don’t know what happened, but whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
“Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable.” — Wendy Wasserstein.
How did I keep the production guys helping me? I appreciated them. I thanked them. I ‘d bring them food when I had nothing testing in the lab. They stopped being the technicians to me. They started being “the guys.” I praised them to the other engineers whenever I had the opportunity.
I started bringing the mechanical engineer I was working with me to the production area. Then I brought the wire harness guy down. Soon, I was bringing whole the team down. We’d work with the production people to figure out what we needed to do to resolve problems.
Other engineers who were not comfortable with the production folks asked me to work with their production technicians. I became a liaison between the design engineers and the production workers which lead to my promotion to, ta-dah, an Engineer. My reputation as a capable engineer spread. Working with the team on the floor helped me refine my skills.
Pay attention to where your work is going. At a minimum, you need to go one level up and one level down to understand what’s going on. To have an even better understanding, you could go two levels up and two levels down to see how the work is flowing.
Take the time to meet the people who provide you with your work and the people where your workflows after you pass it on.
Everyone improves. You explain what you’re doing and what you need, and your colleagues will tell you what they need. Communication works wonders.
Another Leadership Read:
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