The saying, “Bloom where you’re planted” fits me perfectly. In my second year of college, when I was studying Chemical Engineering, I took an intern job at a specialty paper company, and when I graduated, that’s where I went to work. I spent the next forty years working in the paper industry, all in Brazil.
My roots were in one industry but I did not stay in one part of the business, like operations. Early in my career, a top executive in Brazil picked me to be trained in all kinds of different departments to benefit my professional development. So, about every two years, I changed jobs – totally. So, in addition to production and process control, I worked in sales and marketing, safety and health, human resources, quality, Lean Six Sigma, and training. I even spent four years working in the legal department as environmental legal manager!
You might wonder why someone like me would be picked out as a good candidate to work in those departments. Some make a little sense, like quality and Six Sigma and training. But the legal department? The President said to me, “Newton, you go to these areas. I’m challenging you to learn in a new situation and to understand their environment.”
Looking back on the experience, I think this leader saw me as someone with a huge drive to understand. From my days as a child, when I lost my father at a very young age, I’ve always been one who wanted answers to why questions. Why do things like that happen? Why are things the way they are? I think there are reasons, and those reasons are worth taking the time to seek out.
As I grew older, my interest in understanding things grew as well. With an engineering mindset, I wanted to understand much more about “how and why” science. Being curious, to this day, I love to discover new things in science, biology, medicine – and teaching.
I suppose you could call me a seeker.
I will tell you that asking questions as a college student and intern was not always appreciated. There were times when the answer was, “Why do you ask me why?” There was a generation that thought, “You don’t have to know the reason; you just have to do it.”
One of my last jobs in the paper industry was to teach safety leadership to leaders at my company’s operations in South America. I loved that so much that when I retired, I wanted to keep teaching.
I love teaching, and teaching leaders how to lead and lead safety seems to me to be one of the most important subjects there is to teach. I get to share some of the many things I’ve learned about leadership and teaching gives me the opportunity to learn even more from the leaders that I teach. You know the saying, “He who teaches learns the most.” It’s called the “active learning method” and it’s considered to be the best way to learn. For me, it’s another way of seeking understanding.
In my seeking about teaching, there’s what I need to learn to teach well, like how to create engagement, when it’s clear from a student’s body language they’re not involved the way their peers are. That led me to discover things after class or over a coffee break – just by asking.
Very recently I had a conversation with a young leader who I could see by their body language that they were not all that interested in learning about safety leadership.
“Do you like to read books?” I asked.
The reply: “No. I don’t like to read books.”
I wasn’t surprised. “Ok. Then, how do you get your knowledge about an important subject where you need information?”
“I go to Google. Google answers all the information I need.”
“Do you search out other sources and references found in Google?”
“No. One answer is enough.”
It was one conversation, but it was not an isolated event. Looking back on recent classes and conversations like this, it’s now clear this leader has a lot of good company. I’ve had a lot of similar kinds of discussions recently and have heard and seen a lot of that approach to knowledge in recent years, particularly among younger leaders. It’s my observation, not something done by scientific research. It’s just my sense about a generational kind of behavior.
But these are leaders – either now or those ready to assume a leadership position – and these are important subjects.
The thought that struck me was that some people want to go into depth on a subject, but others just aren’t interested in anything like that. Surface knowledge is enough for them. It’s the difference between focusing on “square feet” rather than “cubic feet.”
I wonder how thinking in “square feet” would impact their effectiveness as a leader, particularly in turbulent times.
The Value Of Understanding
Can you imagine a medical doctor making a decision about surgery without in-depth knowledge of the human anatomy? Complex problems in operations require in depth knowledge to understand the root cause and solve the problem successfully. When that kind of understanding is lost, it can jeopardize production, and may require going to the outside for help.
“Cubic feet” can be the difference between life and death, a lesson I once learned from a leader who possessed a lot more cubic feet of knowledge than I did at the time.
As an EHS regional manager, I was visiting one of our sites when there was a critical situation at the water treatment plant, which processed water from the river that served the plant. We were in heavy rains, causing the river to reach the highest level ever seen. Water was overflowing into the channel where the engines of the intake water pumps were located, submerging the engines that powered the pumps. Operations at the site had stopped due to lack of water for the process.
The motors and pumps were located four floors below the level of the river and the entrance to the pump house. To reach them, there were masonry stairs with metal handrails.
Upon arriving at the water treatment plant, I went straight to our people who were there, including the Manager of the utility area. At that moment, with all my experience, I stopped paying attention to a critical fact that would put my life in danger.
Instinctively I headed for the stairs to assess the damage. However, when I went to put my hand on the handrail, I got a huge surprise: the utility manager yelled at me!
He literally grabbed me by my arm and pulled me back, not allowing me to touch the handrail. That’s when he told me…” Newton! We are waiting for the electric team to find out if this handrail has electrical energy – because the motors are submerged in water. Do not touch the handrails because they may be electrified. We will wait for the area to be determined to be safe and then we will access.”
I was amazed by this manager’s intervention, as he not only knew what electricity was, but also understood the effect of electrical conduction on metals. I am so grateful to him for doing this to me.
And teaching me an important lesson about understanding.
I love leaders and have the highest respect for leaders who have challenged me, and challenged me to learn. I’ve always found them to be “cubic feet” kinds of people. Working for a superficial leader, you won’t get that motivation to learn from your boss. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need understanding.
“The only constant is change” said Heraclitus of Ephesus. Think about all the changes you’re involved in: don’t you need to understand what is changing and understand how the change works to be able to make the change happen the way it’s supposed to?
As a leader, the first place to go for cubic feet of understanding is within yourself. As Socrates put it, “Know yourself.” Leaders need to understand what they know, what they don’t know, and who they are.
I think life always puts us with people and situations that drive us to seek depth in the things to be done. As a leader, I can choose to go deeper or not into a theme or problem to be solved. I can also delegate to other people to delve into them. Or I can wait and have events to force me to gain depth. But that can be too late.
However, I have learned that whenever challenges come to me, they force me to understand them, bringing to my mind the following questions: “What do I have to learn from this? What does it want from me?”
I understand, more and more, the importance of asking Darn Good Questions, questions that make people think and reflect and understand the essence of things.
That’s cubic feet!