Getting in Trouble in Grade School Made Me a Better Executive



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education, leadership

Matthew’s rambunctious.
He’s hyperactive.
Matthew just needs to apply himself to his schoolwork.
Matthew can’t sit still.
His handwriting is sloppy because he’s always in a rush.
Matthew likes being the center of attention.

Such were the flavors of comments that landed on my report cards or were uttered in my parent-teacher conferences throughout my academic journey. 

Elementary school was an odyssey.  Near the end of my 5th-grade year, my teacher pulled me aside and informed me that despite my subpar classroom behavior and academic performance my standardized test scores that year were among the highest in the class.  His words of encouragement?  “You can look at this one of two ways; either you’re really smart or you just wasted an entire year of school.”  Um, I think I’ll pick the first way, I thought, but maybe if your class was a little more interesting I would have paid better attention.

On reflection, it’s interesting to me how many of the traits that led to whatever success I managed to achieve as a president and CEO were ones for which I was chided during elementary, middle and high school. 

As a finishing industry leader, my refusal to let our companies sit still was a blessing, not a curse.  To some extent I chalk my propensity to working long hours and maintaining high levels of energy – when backlogs needed attention, quality issues arose or the plant needed a little extra push toward productivity – to what was criticized as rambunctiousness and hyperactivity during my school years.

Apply myself to my schoolwork?  Maybe when it was a means to an end or I could see value in what I was learning.  But pore over a textbook when I could be out with my friends playing wiffleball?  That seemed like wasted effort. Likewise, I abhorred wasted effort in a finishing plant.  In fact, the seven deadly wastes: waiting, motion, rework, inventory, transportation, overprocessing and overproduction are all examples of exerting more effort or resources than what is necessary to meet the end goal.  Perhaps the same personality traits that led me to exert minimum effort academically led to my fascination with productivity and efficiency in finishing.  My businesses didn’t waste resources “applying themselves” to outdated or ineffective means to ends. 

No offense to my grade-school teachers, but despite your best efforts to cure me, I still go through life in a rush.  Machine downtime is an emergency.  Customers with quality concerns constitute an all-out crisis.  Quote requests get filled in hours.  Order expedites are accommodated.  While my inability to sit still wasn’t popular in the teachers' lounge, it seems quite appreciated by my customers.

The center of attention?  I guess I was always comfortable in front of a crowd.  Speaking before groups of hundreds at a coatings conference never made me uncomfortable.  Sharing my musings each month on topics of interest to leaders in the finishing industry – for some sixteen years and running – has helped make me, I believe, a better executive.  I only hope it has done the same for others.

Lest I be misunderstood, of course I believe that education has value.  Of course I believe that students should work hard in school, strive for good grades, behave in the classroom and squeeze the most out of their educational pathway.  The alternative can be more trouble than it’s worth.  But:

As leaders of finishing companies hellbent on sourcing the best talent, we need to be open to the likelihood that formal education isn’t everything and, as argued above, much of the behavior that displeases the institution of education can make for positive results on the plant floor.

I’m a huge advocate for industrial employers being highly engaged with their local school systems.  We should teach advanced manufacturing technology at our high schools and many schools do.  This includes traditional manufacturing like electrical systems, mechanical drives, fluid power, welding and machining as well as smart manufacturing technology like robotics, smart sensors, smart devices, industrial networking and data analytics.  Technical education can be the place where the hands-on, kinesthetic, non-classroom learners find their homes.  Finishers need to be advocates for them and help them navigate to our amazing careers.  We do this by making sure advanced manufacturing disciplines are being taught at our high schools thereby inspiring more students toward manufacturing careers.

Finally, to our students who may not be traditional learners (maybe your kid or the next-door neighbor’s) – play along with the game that is our education system.  Abide by your teachers’ rules and expectations, perform as best you can and learn what you can along the journey. If you’re street smart but find it hard to sit still and excel academically, wait it out.  It gets better.  Way better, in fact, in the world of finishing - and you’re always welcome here.