Work the Bottom Before You Work the Top

1 Oct

My father was an engineer who spent his life working for Bethlehem Mines, the mining subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel. He was a chemical engineer who was in charge of process design for coal cleaning plants, the plants that separated impurities from raw coal so that the clean coal could be used to make coke for heating blast furnaces.

In a word, he was a “suit.” Though he generally wore dress slacks and a sport coat to work rather than a suite. And he often wore a bow tie rather than a long one. A real bow tie, one of those where you had to tie the knot yourself.

Still, his job required that he go down into coal mines on a regular basis. I’m not sure just why this was, that is, I don’t know why he had to see where and how the coal was mined in order to clean it. But he did.

And that means he knew, first hand, that working in a coal mine was nasty, dirty work, and dangerous. On many occasions he told me that a man shouldn’t be given managerial responsibility for coal mines unless that man had had experience working in a coal mine.

That seems like a good principle to me. It’s not so much that working on the coalface down in a mine gives you knowledge you need in order to turn a profit but that working the coalface was necessary to secure empathy for the men who put their lives at risking working that kind of job year after year, and decade after decade.

Managers should be stewards, not simply of profits, but of the workers under their control.

An exercise to the reader: generalize the principle beyond coal mining.

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