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6/1/2004 | 5 MINUTE READ

Try Throwing Down a Challenge

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In the days before income taxes, when a dollar in salary meant 100 cents in your pocket, one of the biggest earners in the world was Charles Schwab, the steel magnate.


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In the days before income taxes, when a dollar in salary meant 100 cents in your pocket, one of the biggest earners in the world was Charles Schwab, the steel magnate. Andrew Carnegie paid him a salary of one million dollars a year.

Yet, Schwab was no great financial wizard. Nor was he especially knowledgeable in the field of steel fabrication. What, then, made him worth $3,000 a day to the Carnegie Steel Corporation?

Andrew Carnegie answered that question when he said, “Charlie has a positive genius for handling men.”

Perhaps the most illuminating example of that genius in action occurred when Schwab was confronted by a mill with a particularly poor record of production. He talked the problem over with the mill manager and asked bluntly, “Why are your men falling so far below their quotas?”

“I honestly don’t know,” the manager replied. “I’ve tried every trick in the book with them. I’ve coaxed them; I’ve pleaded with them. I’ve threatened them, and I’ve cussed them. But nothing works. They’re hopeless.”

“Get me a piece of chalk and meet me over there,” Schwab said, pointing to a knot of workmen. When he had the chalk, Schwab asked one of the workers, “How many heats did your shift make today?”

“Six,” the man told him. Schwab bent down, chalked a large six on the floor and walked away. When the night shift reported for work, they were curious about the number on the floor. What did it mean? The day workers explained.

On the following morning, Schwab dropped in at the mill again. But his six had disappeared. In its place was a large seven, put there by the night shift. The day shift rose to the challenge. By the time they quit work, they were able to erase the seven and replace it with a bold eight. The night shift responded with a gigantic nine. The day shift countered with a swaggering 11. In no time at all, the mill that had been “hopeless” was transformed into the company’s top producer.

“One of the easiest ways to get things done,” Schwab explained to the mill manager, “is to stimulate friendly rivalry. I don’t mean in a money-getting way, but in the desire to excel.”

Try it yourself. When other methods fail, throw down a challenge. The vast majority of employees will respond enthusiastically.

Handling Problem People

Most of the men and women with whom we come into contact on the job are a pleasure to work with. But there are some other kinds, too. How can you handle them? Some types — and suggestions on getting along with them:


  1. People who think you’re telling them how to do their jobs and resent it. They may feel they know their jobs better than anyone else. Get them to feel that their experience can be valuable to others; that the purpose of talking to them is to exchange ideas and pool experience.
  2. People who carry personal grudges. Avoid discussions about their pet peeves. If necessary, explain that you are not interested in their personal prejudices but in running a smoothly operat ing department.
  3. People who are wrong but won’t admit it. Avoid direct criticism, sarcasm or ridicule. Use indirect methods. For example, analyze a “similar case” without any references to them. Above all, talk to them in private.
  4. Argumentative people. They quibble over the most trivial detail and love to get other people’s goats. The first rule: keep cool. Use questions to draw them out. Whenever possible, cite hard facts and figures that refute their position.
  5. Over-talkative people. Try to take the initiative in your conversation. In some cases, it is acceptable to (a) have your secretary or a colleague “interrupt” you after 10 or 15 minutes; (b) plead another appointment; (c) even reach for your hat and coat.

Tell Them Why

When you ask your people to do something, be sure to give reasons. It is well worth the time and effort.

It is all too easy for a busy supervisor to fall into the habit of simply telling people to do things without explanation. It seems like the quickest, easiest way to get things done, but it’s rarely the most effective. When you ask an employee to do something, take time to explain why. It’s an excellent habit that offers identifiable benefits.

For example, an explanation removes the curse of “bossiness.” When there is a good reason for something to be done, it puts you in the position of simply making a reasonable request, and completely removes the bad taste that comes from being ordered around.

You also reduce the chances of error. People who understand why they’re doing something are less likely to foul it up. If the situation changes so that the action is no longer required, they’ll have sense enough to stop. If they don’t understand, they’ll go blindly ahead doing what you told them to, with no payoff.

Explaining the reason for your request is also a compliment to the individual you’ve asked to carry it out. It demonstrates that you think it’s important that the requirements are understood.

In short, people aren’t robots. The more you treat them like intelligent human beings, the better your results will be.

Why Strive for Perfection?

The temptation to turn out work that is a bit less than perfect is constantly present and, under certain circumstances, unavoidable. But given enough time to do a job, there is every reason to aim for perfection.

Consider, for example, what “almost perfect” work would mean under certain circumstances. With even 99 percent defect-free quality—


  • Twenty million letters would be misdelivered daily.
  • More than 15 million wrong drug prescriptions would be dispensed in the U.S. daily.
  • There would be at least four wrong numbers on every page of the telephone book.
  • Traffic lights would not work for about 15 minutes each day
  • There would be no newspaper deliveries four times each year.
  • Your home would be without electricity, water, heat, telephone service or television transmission for about 15 minutes every day.